Why Israel did the terrorists for Gilad deal
Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman has a lengthy piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, in which he explains why Israel never undertook a rescue operation for Gilad Shalit and why it eventually made the trade that it made. I'm just going to give you a few highlights, and then you should read the whole thing
The Gaza Strip, where Shalit was held, is very small and densely populated and is surrounded almost entirely by Israeli ground and naval forces. Gaza itself is subject to constant aerial surveillance by drones and is rife with informers and collaborators with Israel. Finding Shalit became a top priority for Israel’s intelligence agencies, which soon received information on the precise location at which he was being held: a fenced private residence on the outskirts of Gaza City. Planning for a rescue operation was under way when Israeli intelligence learned that Hamas, in cooperation with Iranian intelligence, had planted false information in order to lure Israelis into raiding the booby-trapped house. The operation was called off, and Shalit’s location was never established. It is very unlikely that we will ever learn where he was held. The degree to which Gaza, unlike the West Bank, is opaque to Israeli intelligence has profound implications for future operations there. The inability of Israeli intelligence to discover Shalit’s place of captivity in a small space that is an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv was a profound failure, one to which the departing heads of Israel’s three security organizations — Mossad, Shin Bet and the military — all admitted when they retired this year. Read the whole thing
On July 12, two and a half weeks after their son’s capture, Noam and Aviva Shalit met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told them that he had information indicating that Gilad was alive and well. The parents asked if he had precise information on where their son was being held.
“We are doing everything to find him,” Olmert replied, “but I am sorry to say that so far we have no solid, unequivocal information.” The Shalits implored Olmert not to stage a military rescue operation that would endanger the life of their son and the lives of other soldiers, even if the necessary intelligence was obtained. [Told you so many times. CiJ].
As Olmert was explaining to them that he was not prepared under any circumstances to enter into negotiations with Hamas, his top military aide handed him a message saying that two more Israeli soldiers had been abducted, this time by the extremist Shiite militia Hezbollah, on the Lebanese border. (Olmert denies discussing the possibility of a military rescue with the Shalits or his negotiating stance with Hamas.)
If Jibril served as the inspiration for terrorist organizations, on the Israeli side it was Miriam Grof, the mother of one of Jibril’s Israeli captives, Yosef Grof, who became the model for the families of abductees. Without any experience in dealing with the media, Grof instinctively created strategies that have been used repeatedly by relatives of Israeli P.O.W.’s and M.I.A.’s. She grasped that public pressure on the government is a result of being aggressive and proactive: you make demands, not requests; you focus on what is important to you, not on the good of the country. One former high-ranking member of the I.D.F. recalled her saying that half the country could go up in smoke, just as long as her Yosef came home safe.
Eitan Haber, a respected military correspondent who later became a senior aide to Rabin, told me: “It is difficult to explain, but only someone who met that woman could understand how she filled everyone with a deep, blood-boiling, paralyzing sense of shame. We are speaking about three very tough men [Rabin, Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, the foreign minister] who had no problems saying no, but simply could not stand up to Mrs. Grof. What tipped the scales was not her tears or screaming or her teeth-grinding — all of which I remember clearly — it was the whole package. There was something menacing about her that threatened that the world was coming to an end. Her aggressiveness was not of this world. She broke them all down.”
In large part it was Miriam Grof’s battle for her son that allowed Jibril to get his deal: 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were freed, one of whom was the wheelchair-bound Sheik Ahmad Yassin, who later founded and led Hamas, the same movement whose suicide attacks exacted an enormous and bloody toll on Israelis, and the group that would one day capture Gilad Shalit.
In September 1997, Hadi Nasrallah, the son of the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, was killed in a skirmish with Israeli troops. The Israelis hoped that with his body in their hands, negotiations for the return of the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah would accelerate. Yaakov Perry, the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, was in charge of the case at the time. “We were optimistic,” he told me when we recently spoke. “We thought it would bring a solution closer, but Nasrallah was indifferent. He instructed his men not to put his son’s name at the top of the list and to treat him the same as all the other fallen militiamen. Later I heard that when Hadi’s coffin arrived in Lebanon, his father lifted the lid, glanced at the body of his beloved son and closed it. Not a muscle in his face moved.” The president of German intelligence at the time, August Hanning, who mediated an eventual deal between Israel and Hezbollah, told Perry in bewilderment that although Nasrallah grieved deeply for his son, “the body is another matter. You Israelis have a very unusual attitude on this matter.”
The “sensitivity” of Israel to the body issue has led to the absurd situation in which Israeli soldiers occasionally find themselves risking their own lives — some have been killed in the process — in efforts to extricate the bodies of their comrades from battle, so that those bodies won’t become bargaining chips for future negotiations.
Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror served as a senior officer in military intelligence for decades and today serves as national security adviser to the prime minister. “I believe that it is right to endanger the lives of soldiers in operational actions in order to bring about the release of a living hostage or to get information,” Amidror told me in an interview in 2009. “But the important principle is not to conduct any negotiation for the bodies of abducted soldiers or for living hostages. Israel has trapped itself in an impossible position, in which it sacrifices vital security interests in order to return hostages or their bodies, and this exceeds all the limits of reason. If, for example, it was clear to Hamas or any other organization that we do not pay anything and do not negotiate, the motivation to kidnap would be significantly lower.”
Two days after Shalit’s abduction, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared in the Knesset that he and his government were “dealing with only one matter” — securing the release of Shalit. Olmert’s capitulation to Hezbollah’s demands for the remains of the two soldiers [Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped on July 12, 2006 and whose bodies were returned in exchange for master terrorist Samir al-Kuntar and several lesser lights in 2008. CiJ] set a precedent for the high price to be paid for the bodies of Israeli M.I.A.’s. The weight of these deals made bargaining for Shalit’s freedom nearly impossible.
That thing, improbably, turned out to be an American-Israeli peacenik named Gershon Baskin, who moved to Israel in 1978 to form an N.G.O. devoted to coexistence between Jews and Arabs and who had been a vehement critic of Netanyahu’s for the past 15 years.
Six months before Shalit was abducted, Baskin was at a conference in Cairo, where he struck up a friendship with a professor at the Islamic University of Gaza, a member of Hamas whose name Baskin requested not be published. In the days after the abduction, when Israel launched Operation Summer Rains, the professor phoned Baskin and yelled: “Do something! Your government is bombing us nonstop. There’s no water and no power.”
Through the professor, Baskin was put in contact with Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, and it was this relationship, which took place largely through computer chats over a number of years, that ultimately led to the Shalit deal. Starting days after the abduction, through a relentless series of text messages, e-mail and phone calls, Baskin tried to convince the Olmert government and all other parties involved that he could help broker a deal. For years he was rebuffed as a nuisance by the Israeli officials dealing with the case.
The first message Baskin received from Hamad said that Hamas would free Shalit in exchange for an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, a total cease-fire and the release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners. In an effort to make sure Olmert personally received the message, Baskin approached Olmert’s daughter, Dana, who agreed to speak to her father. Hamas wanted to know who Baskin’s channel to the prime minister was, so he told them about Dana. Shortly after, a senior Israeli intelligence official shocked Olmert by telling him that his daughter’s name had been mentioned by Hamas operatives. Out of concern for Olmert’s daughter’s safety, a member of Olmert’s staff called Baskin into his office and told him not to involve Dana. For the next five years, until David Meidan decided to take his call, Israeli intelligence rejected Baskin’s offers to help. But Baskin phoned Meidan the day he took the job. “Give me three weeks to get organized,” Meidan told him. “I don’t even have an office or a secretary.” Of their first meeting, Baskin said, “He explained to me that Netanyahu had come to a decision, against his own principles, to bring Gilad home.”
Meidan says that it was almost inconceivable that he would enter into a dialogue with the peacenik who said he could mediate a deal on Shalit, but because there was nothing to lose, he decided to try an experiment to see if Baskin’s channel of communication could be trusted. He asked Baskin to convey a message asking Hamas to prove that Shalit was still alive.
On June 14, Baskin and Hamad communicated via chat messages, Baskin speaking on behalf of Meidan and Hamad on behalf of Ahmed Jabari, the commander of the armed wing of Hamas, who was holding Shalit. Jabari’s is also the first name on Israel’s list of terrorists to be assassinated.
“There is no knowledge of how Gilad is for more than one and a half years,” Baskin wrote, “and Jabari or anyone else should not expect Israel to be serious about releasing 450 prisoners without exact knowledge on whether or not he is alive and well.” Baskin communicated that there were two ways to establish proof of life. The first was a visit by the International Red Cross, in exchange for which Meidan agreed to grant family visits for Hamas prisoners in Israel who had not seen their families for more than four years. Conveying Meidan’s sentiments, he wrote, “a humanitarian gesture in exchange for a humanitarian gesture” and underscored that this was “a technical nightmare for Israel” but that Meidan was willing to ensure it would take place. The second option was a video showing that Shalit was alive.
Israeli intelligence tracked Baskin’s messages and found that the pipeline was reliable and accurate. For the next two months, Baskin transmitted the messages to Hamad without any embellishments, and Hamad passed them on precisely to Hamas leadership.
Ultimately, it was Israel that made the supreme compromise in agreeing to release terrorists whom it had vowed never to set free. While half of Hamas’s V.I.P. list remained in prison, those who were released were collectively responsible for the deaths of 600 Israelis and for wounding thousands. Some of them had been sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. German intelligence was amazed by these concessions, which Netanyahu himself had said he would never agree to.
In 2007, a special commission was set up to determine a set of clear criteria to be followed in future prisoner exchanges. In order to protect negotiations on the Shalit deal, its details were not published, but I was told by a source in the ministry of defense that they include a warning against paying an exorbitant price to terrorist organizations in order to bring prisoners home, that the guiding principle should be bodies for bodies and small numbers of imprisoned terrorists for living hostages.
Perhaps this commission was asking Israelis to evoke an attitude that was more prevalent before the first Lebanon war of 1982 and the economic boom of the mid-’80s. It was the attitude in which one Israeli was willing to sacrifice himself for the collective, and in which the collective accepted this sacrifice. Looking back 35 years, it is undeniable that a shift has occurred in Israeli society. It is doubtful, when the time comes, that politicians will be able to resist public pressure and give up whatever is necessary, whatever percentage of the nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners still held in Israel, to bring the missing home.
(it's much longer than this).
Labels: Binyamin Netanyahu, David Meidan, Ehud K. Olmert, Gershon Baskin, terrorists for Gilad trade