January 2009, the third week of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. IDF troops had completely surrounded Gaza City and were busy closing in on Hamas strongholds. The rain had stopped and mud from the first days of the ground offensive had dried up and turned the ground back to its natural terrain – thick sand. During the operation, the IDF swept through most of northern Gaza, going in some villages door-to-door searching for terrorists and weapons caches. Some soldiers later admitted that however unrealistic, there was a hope, if only a glimmer, that behind one of those doors they would find their missing comrade, Gilad Schalit. In the end, that did not happen. Instead, Operation Cast Lead, which started with a massive aerial onslaught against Hamas terror targets in Gaza, ended with a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, except for Schalit, who remained in Hamas captivity.
While Schalit’s rescue was not one of the goals of Operation Cast Lead, there was a hope at the time that it would help the IDF discover where the soldier was being held. Despite these hopes, the IDF returned empty-handed although with a belief that Schalit was being held in southern Gaza, possibly Khan Yunis or Rafah.
This had to do with a simple process of elimination. During the operation, the IDF cut Gaza into two sections and, excluding the occasional short foray in the south, mostly operated in northern Gaza. If Schalit was being held in the north, officials said, they likely would have come across at least an indication and therefore, he is most likely in the south.
Schalit was abducted in a cross-border raid by Hamas near Kerem Shalom on June 25, 2006. He has become a household name around the world in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His parents, Aviva and Noam, fly frequently to European capitals and meet with world leaders in an effort to raise awareness of their son’s continued captivity and lobby them to increase pressure on Hamas.
Four years, however, have passed since that fateful day along the Gaza border and Schalit’s release does not yet appear to be in sight. Ehud Olmert tried to negotiate a deal but, with just days left to his term, Hamas turned it down. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared close to closing the deal in late 2009, but then again the talks fell through.
As of Schalit’s 24th birthday on August 28, talks did not appear to even be taking place. The acceptance by Israel to enter negotiations with Hamas was itself made by default, since every prime minister would have preferred the option of sending elite troops on a dazzling rescue operation.
A military operation, though, was never a viable option mainly due to a lack of intelligence. While Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Southern Command Maj.- Gen. Yoav Galant have gone on record that Schalit is being held in the Gaza Strip, it is not certain that his exact location is known.
This is, by the way, not just the IDF’s fault but the blame is also shared by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad.
TO UNDERSTAND the intelligence failure, it is enough to go back to the day that Schalit was abducted. At around 5 a.m., a group of armed men infiltrated the military post through a 300- meter tunnel they had dug under the Israel-Gaza border. They attacked an empty armored personnel carrier and then turned their attention to Schalit’s tank. Two soldiers were killed and a number wounded, including Schalit, who was last seen being dragged into Gaza.
Information about the kidnappers was slim to begin with. There were reports of a previously unknown group called the Army of Islam, an affiliate of al-Qaida consisting of former and more radical Hamas operatives. The cell behind the abduction was compartmentalized from other groups. They trained together and dug the tunnel together. By the time Israel realized that a soldier had been kidnapped, it was already too late. Schalit for all purposes had fallen off the face of the earth.
Israel was initially reluctant to use extreme military force in Gaza following the abduction, fearing that if senior Hamas operatives were killed, Schalit would be harmed. Before Operation Cast Lead, the assessment was that Hamas would prefer releasing him instead of facing a massive military onslaught. This proved wrong. After Cast Lead – during which Hamas terror leaders were targeted and some like interior minister Said Siam were killed – Hamas still did not budge from its original demands.
The basic framework of the deal is known and currently Hamas’s declared policy is that “the ball remains in the Israeli court.” Their demands include the release of some 1,000 prisoners – 450 of them can be called “heavyweights” or senior terrorists with blood on their hands – belonging not only to the Islamic movement, but to all Palestinian factions, including from its rival Fatah. The reason for this ‘largesse’ is that Hamas wants to score as many points as possible on the Palestinian street.
On the list are Marwan Barghouti, the former Tanzim chief who is serving five life sentences; Ahmed Sa’dat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who has been convicted of masterminding the assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi; and Ibrahim Hamed, the former commander of Hamas’ military wing and the mastermind behind a number of deadly suicide bombings in the second intifada.
The release of Fatah inmates, especially Barghouti, would certainly be regarded as a major victory for Hamas and a severe blow to the secular faction headed by Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas is desperate for such a victory, sources close to the movement in the Gaza Strip said last week. “Hamas needs to show the Palestinian public some kind of achievement after all these years,” one source said.
ONE ISSUE that has been at the core of debates is whether Israel will allow some of the released prisoners to return to the West Bank. During Olmert’s tenure as prime minister he faced stiff Shin Bet opposition to such a move. Under Netanyahu the Shin Bet has softened its stance and Israel, in the last round of talks, reportedly offered to allow some of the prisoners to return to their homes in the West Bank.
Hamas spokesmen said last week that the last thing their movement needs these days is to be seen “helping Israel carry out a transfer of Palestinians.” While the fear is that Hamas will use the released prisoners to try to rebuild its terror infrastructure in the territory, the IDF’s “tight grip” over the West Bank coupled with the dramatic improvement of PA security forces would make such a job extremely difficult.
Since the Turkish flotilla fiasco and Netanyahu’s decision – under international pressure – to ease the blockade on Gaza, Israel is left with little diplomatic leverage over Hamas. Instead, some defense officials have urged the government to exert pressure on Hamas in other ways, such as by stopping visitation rights to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Other ideas that have come up over the years but have been rejected by negotiator Hagai Hadas have been to secretly film Hamas prisoners in jail talking derogatorily about the Hamas leadership outside, particularly in Damascus. The release of such footage is believed to be capable of creating a rift within Hamas and cause it to possibly ease its demands.
What Israel needs to remember is that the Palestinians have paid a very heavy price since the abduction of Schalit. About 4,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded.
That’s why Hamas needs a “good deal” so that it can justify the heavy price the Palestinians have paid since the kidnapping. In this case, a good deal means as many prisoners with blood on their hands as possible.
In signing any prisoner deal, Hamas will have to take into account what its enemies in Fatah will say. Fatah will undoubtedly try to discredit Hamas and mock its “achievement.” The Hamas- Fatah power struggle has become a major factor in the movement’s calculations.
But the case of Schalit also seems to have created tensions inside Hamas. Sources in the Gaza Strip have been talking about “serious differences of opinion” between the movement’s Syria-based leaders and those in Gaza.
The ones based in Damascus are headed by Khaled Mashaal, who has taken a
tough line. According to the sources, Mashaal and his men are convinced
that the longer they wait, the more they will be able to get.
On the other hand, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar are said to have
been more “flexible.” The two, the sources explained, have been pushing
for a deal that would accept Israel’s demand to deport some of the
prisoners, but only on a temporary basis. Moreover, Haniyeh and Zahar
are said to have expressed their willingness to drop some names from the
list of prisoners.
In any case, Hamas says that “no serious talks” have been taking place
over the past few weeks. In the words of a Hamas legislator, “The talks
are stuck because of Israeli intransigence and fear. Olmert wanted a
deal, but was afraid of Israeli public opinion. Netanyahu seems to be in
the same situation and that’s why it’s almost impossible to achieve a