Why captured Israeli soldier raises the stakes for Israel and Hamas

The IDF is bombing the southern Gaza Strip after a soldier went missing this morning in a clash with Hamas militants. Captured Israeli soldiers can give Hamas significant leverage.

Baz Ratner/REUTERS
An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires towards the Gaza Strip August 1, 2014. Israel declared a Gaza ceasefire over on Friday and killed more than 50 Palestinians in renewed shelling, saying militants had breached the truce shortly after it began and apparently captured an Israeli soldier. The 72-hour break announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting, and followed mounting international alarm over a rising Palestinian civilian death toll.

The suspected Hamas capture of an Israeli soldier this morning has sparked a heavy Israeli bombardment in the southern Gaza Strip, shattering the 72-hour cease-fire that began at 8 a.m. and scuppering talks in Egypt for a final agreement.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin was dragged into a tunnel at 9:30 a.m. in clashes involving a Palestinian suicide bomber that killed two other soldiers. Hamas military wing Al Qassam Brigades said in a statement that its fighters had wounded and killed “many” soldiers in Rafah, but did not mention a capture.   

If Goldin is confirmed to be in Hamas hands, it would represent a major triumph for the Islamist movement, which seeks the release of more than 400 operatives arrested last month as well as a lifting of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The capture of Israeli soldiers resonates deeply in Israeli society, with each soldier seen as a son whom the nation has the responsibility to bring home. In 2011, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinians prisoners for Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who became a household name during his five-year captivity, with everyone from activists to pop artists lobbying the government to secure his release.

A capture at this juncture in the war could lead to a significant Israeli escalation with even greater public support. That would be devastating for Palestinians, more than 1,400 of whom have already been killed, the vast majority of them civilians.

“Israeli society's intolerance for its soldiers languishing in captivity is such that these casualties of a historical conflict (and the popular movements that arise to free them) end up having a momentous impact on strategic decisions taken by Israeli governments,” says Ronen Bergman, author of “By Any Means Necessary – Israel's Covert War for Its POWs and MIAs.” “I have seen how often the issue, instead of being an outcome of history, has become a generator of history, the tail that wags the dog.”

Trading cards

A member of Goldin's community say he is a person with his head in heaven and feet on the ground, who takes his connection to God and the Torah seriously, studying for two years in a yeshiva before entering the army. He was quiet and studious, someone who took responsibility.

Hamas considers the capture of an Israeli soldier an important victory, both because it shows the organization's ability against better-equipped forces, and because it could give the group substantial leverage in negotiations with Israel. It has demanded the release of prisoners and the lifting of the blockade, which has driven up food and fuel prices, led to widespread power and water shortages, and tightly controlled trade and travel.

When Hamas captured Shalit in 2006, it held him for five years, until Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of carrying out attacks that killed more than 500 Israelis. Hamas trumpeted the deal as a major success, and last year Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal explicitly called for more captures of Israeli soldiers to win the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The IDF says that since the beginning of 2013, it thwarted 64 Hamas attempts to abduct Israelis. Last month, Israel arrested more than 400 Hamas members in the West Bank – dozens of whom had been released in the Shalit deal – in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens. Israel immediately accused Hamas of the kidnappings, though six weeks later it has yet to offer any proof of the organization’s involvement in what was more likely a local initiative.

Adnan Abu Amr, a Gaza analyst who is close to Hamas, says the capture of Israeli soldiers has been an explicit goal since the beginning of the conflict. “Hamas wants to use this to free all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons,” he says.

When Al Qassam announced it had captured an Israeli soldier on July 20, posting his ID tag, the streets in Gaza City erupted in celebratory gunfire and shouts of “Allahu akbar!” meaning “God is great!” The soldier, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, was later pronounced killed in action. Al Qassam has not released video or pictures other than of the dog tag to prove possession of the soldier or his remains.

Another Shalit deal unlikely

Gershon Baskin, who helped establish the backchannel talks that led to Shalit’s release, says it’s unlikely Hamas will be able to leverage a new capture to the same effect as in 2011.

“Al Qassam just signed the death sentenced [sic] of many Hamas leaders. There will not be another Schalit deal,” he tweeted this morning.

Since Shalit’s release, the IDF reinstated the Hannibal Protocol, which essentially authorizes the military to take any steps necessary to ensure the captors cannot make off with an Israeli soldiers – even if it means endangering the captured soldier's life. 

There are two reasons for that, says Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy in Tel Aviv.

“One is because it puts the whole society through that trauma,” he says. “Second, it’s an actual security threat, because they have to release prisoners in exchange and those Palestinians go on to launch their attacks.”

Palestinians near Rafah, where the soldiers clashed with Hamas while working to destroy a tunnel, are reporting heavy bombardment that has killed 40 as of press time.

Al Qassam says the soldiers entered areas of Rafah around 2 a.m. that had not previously been under Israeli control and accused Israel of breaking the cease-fire, which it agreed to last night. Israel has insisted on continuing to destroy tunnels during the temporary cease-fires, which Hamas argues allows Israel to continue its military objectives while preventing Hamas from taking action.

“The occupation's announcement of the capture of a soldier is an attempt to mislead and justify its retreat from the cease-fire and a cover for the brutal massacres in Rafah,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told local media.

The pounding in Rafah may be the beginning of an escalation of the overall operation, and a refusal to engage with future cease-fire attempts. Many Israelis are blaming Hamas for using the prelude to today’s cease-fire to launch the sophisticated attack this morning.

“You cannot talk and shoot at the same time, and Israel doesn’t agree to that,” says Maj. Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv, former head of the IDF Gaza Division. “We might see a change in public opinion, an understanding that we may have to go much further.”

Kristen Chick reported last month from Gaza. She contributed to this report from Pristina, Kosovo.

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