While many in Israel and elsewhere have spent the last few days bashing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his painful but unavoidable decision to pay an egregious price to ransom Gilad Shalit, one of the country’s sacred cows has, at least to this point, avoided much criticism. But an article in today’s Haaretz offers at least a partial answer to a question many friends of Israel have been wondering about in the days since the announcement of the deal with Hamas to free Gilad Shalit: Why was the Israel Defense Forces unable to rescue him at any point during his more than five years of captivity?
According to Ronen Cohen, a recently retired colonel in Israel’s military intelligence, “The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back. They simply passed it on to the Shin Bet [security service].”
Cohen said the IDF had “partial intelligence” about Shalit at one point but that this information ceased to be relevant in December 2008 when Operation Cast Lead — Israel’s counter-attack against Palestinian missile fire from Gaza — took place.
It should be specified that cracking Hamas’ Gaza stronghold is a challenge that would daunt any military strategist. The densely packed area is a warren of refugee housing that provides a plethora of places to hide weapons, personnel and captives. It is entirely possible if not likely any rescue operation would have resulted in Shalit’s death as well as the deaths of many of the soldiers sent to rescue him.
Nevertheless, the fact that the IDF never set up a unit or operational group specifically tasked with the Shalit problem is troubling. Perhaps the chain of command mandated that, as Cohen says, once Shalit was kidnapped he became the responsibility of the intelligence services. But the result of this failure to prepare or work on this critical situation was made clear when, as Cohen also points out, Israel failed to take advantage of the chaos in Gaza during Cast Lead to try to rescue Shalit.
There is probably a lot more to this story than we know, and it may be that within the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus there were people working hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to get Shalit without forcing the government to release a thousand terrorists. But Cohen’s comments seem to indicate there was an unfortunate sentiment within the IDF that may have simply assumed rescue was impossible and a ransom of bloodthirsty killers was inevitable. Perhaps that is so, but a defeatist spirit within the defense establishment may have ensured a regrettable outcome.
Rather than beating up Netanyahu for bowing to the inevitable, friends of Israel might do better to focus their energies at this point on ramping up pressure on Washington to crack down hard on Iran which is Hamas’ leading supplier of armament and to stop pressuring Israel to make pointless concessions to the Palestinians to revive dead end peace talks. Shalit’s kidnappers are the true face of Palestinian statehood. The culture of Palestinian politics — where murderers are heroes — must change before there is any hope of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.
As for Israelis, the end of the Shalit tragedy might be a good time for them to look closely at the failures of their defense establishment that created Netanyahu’s dilemma.