In the early morning hours of June 25, 2006, Hamas and two other Palestinian factions opened fire on five IDF positions along the Gaza border. Amid the commotion, several gunmen crossed the border through a tunnel that had been dug under a fence and surprised a tank crew from behind. A rocket hit the tank, and one officer and another soldier were killed immediately. A third man was wounded, lost consciousness, and remained trapped inside the cabin. The fourth crew member, Gilad Shalit, got out—sprinklers that operated automatically after the rocket hit made it impossible for him to stay inside—was captured and taken across the border to the Gaza Strip. A few hours later, Hamas announced that it was holding an Israeli soldier.
Since the abduction, the Shalit family has received a couple of letters from their son, an audio tape, and finally a short video, delivered in October 2009 in exchange for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has refused Israeli demands to allow the International Red Cross to visit Shalit, although Israel allows such visits at its prisons. Not much more is known about the Israeli hostage’s situation. Shalit, now 24 years old, seemed in the 2009 video to have recovered from the physical wounds he suffered during the abduction. The fear now is mainly about Shalit’s psychological well-being: What have nearly five years in total seclusion done to his emotional health? Will he return from Gaza a shadow of his former self? In the video Shalit was quite coherent, but 19 months have passed since the taping, and Shalit had read from a script dictated by his captors. Shalit’s parents are usually reluctant to express personal feelings, but from interview to interview their worry about his mental state only seems to grow.
Hamas activists have told Nathan Thrall, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, that members of the group mentioned “Gilad” many times during phone conversations after the abduction, to mislead Israeli intelligence. “We took Gilad to lunch,” the activists would say, or “We met with him.” But it is believed that the people who are actually responsible for the soldier avoid using phones. Most of their contact with the outside world is done through messengers, young boys who deliver handwritten notes.
Has Israel made any attempts to rescue Shalit since his capture? As far as we know, not anything Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been proud of. Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak constantly say that all options remain open and that the Israeli security branches are working on relevant operational plans. Current and former senior officials in Israel’s different security agencies have attributed the failure to rescue Shalit to the strict secrecy surrounding his whereabouts. A tight, disciplined group of members from the organization’s military wing is in charge of hiding the kidnapped soldier and guarding him. The senior members of the military wing, many of them veterans of the Israeli prison system, have learned their lessons from the failures of previous kidnapping attempts. The IDF’s previous chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, admitted in 2009: “We don’t know where Gilad is held.”
One might assume that Shabak, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, has some general information about the area in which Shalit is being held, but for an Israeli prime minister to seriously consider the possibility of a rescue operation along the lines of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, the information has to be precise. Netanyahu also has to ask himself what kind of risk he’d be willing to take regarding the lives of the commandos. If, for example, Shalit is held in a secure basement of a house located in a heavily populated refugee camp, the raid wouldn’t only be a question of the intelligence required—What house? What floor? Is the hostage forced to carry a belt of explosives on his body?—but also how to surprise his guards, send in a team unannounced, and get both the rescue commandos and the hostage out safely without having the whole of the Gaza Strip on their tails?
Senior Israeli officers with experience of missions of this sort admit that imagining a Shalit rescue is the most challenging tactical problem they have ever encountered. Netanyahu, contrary to his right-wing ideological background and tough public persona regarding terrorism, has actually been very careful about using military force in the past, because he knows that operations can go terribly wrong. He lost his older brother, Col. Yoni Netanyahu, in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, during the most famous and heroic Israeli rescue operation. In 1994, Shabak located another kidnapped soldier, Nahson Waxman, who was held in a Palestinian village near Jerusalem. Both Waxman and an IDF officer were killed during the rescue attempt.
But Israel has also failed to successfully apply non-military pressure on Hamas. After Shalit’s abduction, Israel arrested about 40 Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament and a few ministers in the West Bank, who were then released—moves that seemed largely inconsequential on the Palestinian side. In late February this year, a Palestinian engineer and presumed Hamas member, Dirar Abu-Sisi, disappeared while riding a night train in Ukraine. A few weeks later, Israel admitted to having him in their custody but refused to discuss how he got there. The German weekly Der Spiegel, considered to have great intelligence sources, claimed Abu-Sisi was kidnapped by Mossad agents looking to discover where Shalit is being held. Abu-Sisi denies any knowledge of Shalit’s whereabouts. And last month, the Israeli Air Force assassinated Tayser Abu-Snima, a member of the Popular Resistance Committees who is considered to have been involved in the planning of the Shalit abduction.
When Shalit was kidnapped, Ehud Olmert was serving as prime minister. In March 2009, as Olmert was being forced out of office after he was indicted for corruption, many Israeli analysts assumed that Olmert would try to finish the Shalit deal before handing over the government to Netanyahu. An Israeli delegation, including Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and Olmert’s chief negotiator on the swap, Ofer Dekel, traveled to Cairo for indirect negotiations with Hamas. The Israelis stayed in one hotel, while the leader of the Hamas military wing, Ahmad Al-Jaabri, whom Israel had tried to assassinate numerous times, stayed in another. Olmert’s people now claim that the Egyptians came close to striking a deal. But then, they say, Hamas officials watched a TV broadcast showing then and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak sitting with the Shalit family. Barak went there to express support for the parents’ demand that the government make more concessions and close the deal. Hamas, says Olmert, immediately realized that it now had power to squeeze Israel into new concessions and refused to sign the agreement. Barak, naturally, denies the story.
Al-Jaabri and the senior members of Hamas’ military wing seem to be calling the shots regarding a possible Shalit deal. During the Cairo talks, Hamas was represented by three members of the military wing and only one member of the political wing, Mahmud a-Zahar. Even the head of Hamas’ political office in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal, usually considered the organization’s leader, can only advise Al-Jaabri on the subject. While the Hamas government in Gaza has asked Al-Jaabri many times to reach an agreement with the Israelis, he has refused, insisting that Israel should accept all his demands. A year ago, a crisis developed in the Hamas leadership over Shalit, and a-Zahar resigned from the negotiation team. Six months later, he rejoined. It is not known how the prospective Hamas-Fatah pact is likely to affect the splits within the Hamas leadership or the possibilities for a deal.
During the last four years and 11 months, Hamas has been trying to create public pressure on the Israeli government to agree to Hamas’ terms for completing the deal. It started with the publication of one of Gilad Shalit’s letters to his family after less than a year in captivity. But Hamas’ attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Israel have grown more complex with time and have recently been aimed at creating a feeling of urgency or panic in Israeli public opinion. For example, a demonstration organized by Hamas in Gaza included a performance in which a Palestinian actor playing Gilad Shalit appeared in a cage, crying for his release. In April 2010, the armed wing of Hamas released an animated video portraying Shalit’s father, Noam, walking empty streets, carrying a picture of his son. He passes by billboards with Olmert promising in Hebrew to release Gilad. Then Noam passes a picture of Netanyahu, who promises the same. In the background, you can hear the real voice of the abducted soldier. The Noam character continues to walk, growing old with a walking stick until the announcement comes that a deal has been completed. The father is then shown waiting for Gilad at the entrance to the Gaza Strip. A Red Cross bus arrives carrying a coffin covered with the Israeli flag. Noam cries out and wakes up from a nightmare. The subtitle reads: “There is still hope.”
What is known is that Hamas is currently demanding that Israel release 1,000 prisoners for Shalit, in two stages. At first, 550 prisoners chosen by Israel would be freed in return for Shalit being delivered to a third party, presumably Egypt. Then, Israel would release 450 more prisoners, from a list of names that Hamas has provided. Israel has also discussed another release of 400 prisoners as a gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Both sides have agreed on the mechanism by which the prisoners would be released. The heart of the problem remains the group of 450 prisoners Israel says has blood on its hands. Many of these prisoners are serving life sentences for their involvement in the murder of hundreds of Israelis during the Oslo peace process and the Second Intifada. Hamas expects the release of some of its senior prisoners and also of Marwan Bargouti, one of Fatah’s leaders in the West Bank, and Ahmad Saadat, the leader of the Palestinian Popular Front. According to reports printed in the Arab press, the debate now concerns a few dozen prisoners. Israel insists that some of these men remain in jail. Others, it suggests, will not be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank but will be kept further away, in Gaza or in Europe, since they might help Hamas rebuild its terror networks if they were permitted to stay in the West Bank. Netanyahu has said lately that most of the discussion now regards the number of prisoners to be deported.
A senior Egyptian official who participated in the negotiations says that Israel has handled the issue “worse than a used cars salesman.” The Israelis, he insists, “behaved like amateurs. They drew an imaginary red line and then agreed to withdraw, again and again. And all this time Hamas didn’t blink. They never moved an inch.” In the beginning, Olmert agreed to free only a few dozen prisoners from the Hamas list. By the end of his term, it was 325 of the 450—and it is believed that Netanyahu has agreed to go even further.
After Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in early 2009, Germany replaced Egypt as the primary mediator between Israel and Hamas. The chief German representative, Gerhard Conrad, has acquired a great deal of experience in previous prisoner deals with Hezbollah. This time, it seems his mission is even more difficult. In early April, Hamas officials reported that Conrad’s latest visit to the region had failed. A few days later, Netanyahu’s negotiator, Hagai Hadas, announced his resignation, saying he had promised his family that he would retire after two years. Netanyahu quickly replaced him with another Mossad official, David Meidan, the former head of the organization’s international relations branch, which means that the Shalits will now have to deal with its third official representative in less than five years.
Meanwhile, Gilad Shalit himself has become a sort of national hero, our collective Israeli child. His is the young face that an entire nation reflects upon in a mixture of guilt, mercy, and sympathy. While the United States generally refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers of American citizens or soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (Olmert says that President George W. Bush was angry at him for “talking to terrorists” regarding Shalit), here everything is open to bargaining.
The difference between the American and Israeli approaches to hostage situations might have a lot to do with the fact that Israel has a mandatory military service, while in the United States, an American soldier’s kidnapping might almost be considered a freely chosen occupational hazard. In a small society like Israel, where every young man is expected to serve, the general sense of solidarity with Shalit is huge, particularly among the young. Israeli sensitivity toward military casualties has grown rapidly over the last two decades—and is even greater when it comes to live hostages.
The Shalit family’s tragedy has become a national story whose continuing resonance throughout most sectors of Israeli society is hard to overstate. Gilad Shalit’s face can be seen on more Israeli T-shirts than Che Guevara, Jim Morrison, and Bart Simpson put together. Google will turn out 2.2 million results for his name in Hebrew alone, while the names of the officer and soldier killed in his tank are nearly forgotten. Two months ago, Israeli police arrested a con man suspected of stealing hundreds of thousands of shekels from citizens who believed they were contributing money to the Shalit cause.
Gilad’s parents, Noam and Aviva, have stayed for months at a protest tent across the road from Netanyahu’s official residence. On cold Jerusalem nights, one can see them there, two lonely figures, fighting the freezing wind. The Shalits are considered a very polite, patriotic family, though in an interview with us two and a half years ago, Noam Shalit attacked Olmert quite aggressively. Had Olmert and his sons served in combat units themselves, he implied, the prime minister’s attitude might have been different. For Noam Shalit, whose twin brother Yoel died as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, this is a very thorny issue. His relationship with Netanyahu (a former officer of the elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal) is slightly better.
New initiatives on Shalit’s behalf are born every week. One Tuesday morning this March, a group of citizens called upon all Israelis to stop what they were doing for five minutes and think of Shalit. Hundreds of thousands of people participated, including President Shimon Peres and many government ministers. It was an act of frustration, of impotence, wrote Michal Levertov in Haaretz. Like another new Israeli custom—leaving an empty chair for Gilad during the Seder—the protest moves the problem into the mystical world, exempting the government from responsibility for Shalit’s fate. Levertov called such acts “a memorial for a living soldier.” She is right.
The organization campaigning for Shalit’s release, a movement that depends strictly on volunteers, has debated one question for years: Should the fight become more aggressive? The debate inevitably brings up the Groff affair, during which eight IDF soldiers were kidnapped in 1983 by Palestinians in Lebanon. Miriam Groff, one of the soldiers’ mothers, applied personal pressure on then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even collapsed in his office. Rabin couldn’t stand it and approved the Jibril prisoners swap, agreeing to release hundreds of terrorists. Two years later, many of those prisoners helped ignite the First Intifada.
Growing public support for Shalit’s release “at any cost” drives the old guard in Israel—former generals and the conservative right—crazy. Many see the attitude toward Shalit as sentimental and childish. They are also afraid that his release will bring a huge surge in morale for Hamas, not to mention the danger from hundreds of experienced terrorists coming back to the territories after gaining a lot of knowledge from their colleagues in Israeli jails. “Shabak officials showed me the list of prisoners who are supposed to return to my area,” says one IDF regional commander in the West Bank. “I’m very worried. This would completely change the situation here.”
Retired Maj. Gen. El’azar Stern is one of the proposed deal’s toughest and most vocal opponents. “Shalit should not be released at any cost,” he told us. “Hamas’ demands are irrational and not proportional. We should not think only of the Shalits but also of the parents of children who might be killed if these murderers are released.” Much of the public hysteria is produced by a PR firm working with the Shalit family and movement, Stern said, pointing at the ceiling. The PR firm’s offices are located a few floors above Stern’s office, at the Azriely complex in midtown Tel Aviv. Like others who oppose a swap, Stern reminded us that in 2004 Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the bodies of three IDF soldiers and one (living) corrupt reserve officer held in Lebanon. The result? According to Shabak, 165 Israelis were killed by some of these former prisoners over the following three years.
Netanyahu is not impervious to such arguments. Recently, while speaking to Knesset members from the right wing of his Likud party, he complained about their attacks against him. “I’m doing everything I can to keep the prisoners in jail,” Netanyahu reprimanded one MK. “They’re all supposed to be released for Shalit. It’s just me, only me, alone, preventing this, under enormous pressure. I agreed to free more prisoners than Olmert did, but I refuse to let them come back to Judaea and Samaria. Let them go to Tunisia.”
On the other hand, here’s what Nahum Barnea, a senior Israeli journalist, wrote in Yedioth Ahronot the day the entire country stopped for five minutes in honor of Shalit. Maybe there’s no other way but paying the full price Hamas demands, he wrote. The government has tried everything and failed. After almost five years it’s time to move on. Barnea’s main argument refers to the damage the Shalit affair has caused to the heart of the state’s commitment to its citizens, and especially its combat soldiers. While service in the IDF is mandatory, combat service is no longer unavoidable, and an 18-year-old Israeli can easily find ways to serve in comfortable places and avoid danger. IDF senior officers have told us, on numerous occasions, that Shalit’s fate is a source of constant frustration among their troops. The fear young soldiers show for their lives gradually erodes the unwritten agreement between them and their government.
Although public opinion polls show a steady majority of support for “great concessions” in return for Shalit’s release, some analysts believe that publishing the names of the senior prisoners to be included in the swap (and their deeds) might change the public’s attitude. Being familiar with the details of the case, and the men who are likely to be released in any prisoner swap, we have differing views on the wisdom of a deal. In fact, having worked and written together for many years, we have yet to encounter a question in which our own personal opinions are so divided. It may be, as the saying has it, that you stand where you sit. One of us (Issacharoff) tends to emphasize the huge advantages Hamas will gain from a deal, the danger to the PA regime in the West Bank, and the possible future terrorist attacks. The other (Harel) concentrates on the ongoing damage to the IDF’s spirit. It is also an emotional issue: When your 7-year-old son’s favorite bedtime imaginary game becomes “saving Gilad Shalit,” it is hard not to want to see Shalit free, whatever the cost.
Amos Harel is the defense analyst for Haaretz. Avi Issacharoff is the newspaper’s Arab affairs correspondent. They blog at MESS Report, on Haaretz.com.