On June 21 1972, Israel launched “Operation Crate” to kidnap Syrian intelligence
officers who it planned to use as bargaining chips to negotiate the release of
three Israeli Air Force airmen who had been captured by Syria two years
The unit chosen for the operation was the IDF’s elite General
Staff Reconnaissance Unit, otherwise known as Sayeret Matkal. It’s commander at
the time was a young lieutenant colonel named Ehud Barak. One of his squad
leaders was a young lieutenant named Binyamin Netanyahu.
The night of the
operation, Barak stayed back at IDF headquarters to ensure that the General
Staff would not cancel the raid as it had done on previous occasions. It ended
successfully with the capture of five senior Syrian intelligence officers. A
year later, the three IAF airmen were returned to Israel in a prisoner
On Tuesday, Barak and Netanyahu again participated in an operation
that led up to a prisoner swap although of a different kind. Gilad Schalit, who
was kidnapped on June 25, 2006 - almost 34 years to the day of “Operation Crate”
- was returned to Israel in a swap with Hamas which will end with 1,027
Palestinians released from Israeli prisons.
Something has changed in
Israel. Once a country famous for daring and brave operations like the one in
1972 or others in more recent years such as the alleged bombing of a weapons
convey on Sudan or a nuclear reactor in Syria, Israel is today - following the
swap - perceived by some as a country that surrenders to terrorist
While Jerusalem may preach to the world about the need to stand
strong in face of the growing Islamic terror threat, it appears - on the surface
- to be doing exactly the opposite.
That is why there is no question that
at least in the short term, the deal will strengthen Hamas and most likely
undermine Fatah. While the Palestinian Authority was able to enjoy some of the
spotlight with the release of 96 convicted terrorists to Ramallah, the real
celebration belonged to Khaled Mashal in Cairo and Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza
Hamas has proven to its people and to the larger “resistance”
world which consists of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran that terror pays and that it’s
use of force, even at the expense of military operations, sea blockades and
diplomatic isolation ultimately pays off. Hamas has been able to do what Fatah
It is likely for this reason that Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu decided to make the deal now.
While the so-called “Arab Spring”
and the fear that the current Egyptian mediator will not be in power in a few
months to close the deal contributed to the decision to go ahead with the swap
now, so did the fact that a new round of negotiations with the PA have not yet
started. Had Israel been in the middle of peace talks with Fatah, a prisoner
swap of this size and magnitude might have had to wait and as the whole world
witnessed on Tuesday, Schalit did not look like time was on his side.
first images that came out of Schalit were filmed by an Egyptian film crew that
had been strategically placed at the Rafah Crossing. It showed him being pulled
out of a white pickup truck and wearing a black baseball hat and a checkered
shirt - apparently the latest in Gaza fashion - by two Hamas men and being
half-dragged half-led into the Rafah Crossing.
One of the men was wearing
a uniform and was armed. He was later identified as Ra’ad Atar, commander of the
Hamas brigade in Rafah and one of the main planners of the June, 2006 attack
near Kerem Shalom, during which Schalit was abducted.
The second man,
wearing a blue shirt with the trimmed beard was Ahmed Jabar, commander-inchief
of Hamas’s Military Wing and one of the mostwanted terrorists in the Gaza Strip
The fact that Schalit was accompanied by both of these top terror
chiefs was an indication for Israel of just how involved they must have been in
the prolonged captivity. In the coming weeks, when Schalit’s debriefing begins,
the IDF will learn whether Schalit knew who they were and whether he was able to
identify his different captors.
In general, the IDF was surprised by
Schalit’s mental state. When he sat down minutes after crossing into Israel for
his first conversation with an IDF psychologist, he smiled and said to the
doctor: “I knew you would be surprised by my condition.”
had a television at some point and was allowed to regularly listen to the radio.
Interaction with other people though was severely limited as Schalit told
Egyptian State TV during the interview he was forced to undergo before being
released to Israel.
With the Schalit chapter behind Israel, the
Netanyahu-Barak duo can now move forward with plans to deal with some of the
other strategic challenges Israel faces in the region, such as Iran’s nuclear
program as one example.
While the two issues – Iran and Schalit - are not
directly connected, it is likely that following an Israeli attack against Iran
which would destabilize the Arab and Muslim world, the ability to reach a deal
with Hamas would also be significantly delayed.
By reaching a deal now,
Netanyahu clears his desk and is able to focus on Israel’s true strategic
With that said, an attack on Iran is not likely to happen
so soon. More immediately, Israel might start to feel an improvement in its ties
with Egypt which played the key role in mediating the deal with Hamas. David
Meidan, the former Mossad operative turned chief Schalit negotiator, declared
more than once that without the Egyptians there would not have been a
That is also why Israel was willing to let the uncoordinated
interview with Egyptian TV slide by with just minor criticism. The hundreds of
journalists and IDF officers gathered at the Tel Nof Air Force Base awaiting
Schalit’s arrival and watching the interview on a large screen let out a joint
sound of disgust when journalist Shahira Amin asked Schalit if he would now
campaign for the release of the Palestinians who remain in Israeli
For Egypt, the interview was its way of taking credit for the deal
and being able to show it off to the world. It comes at a time when the world
looks at Egypt as a country in complete disarray. By mediating the deal and
overseeing the prisoner swap, Egypt positions itself as the country it was known
as under Hosni Mubarak – a regional superpower.
When it comes to he
potential risk that the released prisoners pose to Israel, the IDF and the Shin
Bet (Israel Security Agency) are not overly concerned. While statistics
accumulated by the Shin Bet show that 60 percent of Palestinians released in
previous swaps have returned to terror activity, in this case, the fact that
only 96 terrorists were released to the West Bank dramatically minimizes the
threat. The hundreds released to Gaza will be a boost for existing Hamas
capabilities but the Izz a Din al-Kassam Brigades already numbers 20,000
The main problem is the same dilemma that Israel faced when
Schalit was originally abducted in 2006 - to negotiate a prisoner swap or not.
This question will come up again if and when another soldier is abducted. The
possibility that the government will simply declare now that from now on it will
not negotiate for kidnapped soldiers is a bit extreme considering that it will
be going from 1,027 to zero.
There is no question that Israel needs to
formulate a clear policy for dealing with instances of kidnapped soldiers. This
was made clear by the Winograd Commission which probed the failures of the
Second Lebanon War and dedicated a chapter called “Kidnapping - A Strategic
Threat” in its report.
In the beginning of the chapter, the members of
the war panel stressed the sensitivity of the issue but claimed that lack of a
formulated policy on how to deal with a kidnapped soldier was harmful for
Israel's national security.
“The lack of a clear and detailed policy - at
all the different levels - for dealing with the kidnapping threat is a strategic
mistake and even weakens Israel,” the report read. “It is clear that as long as
we appear vulnerable... the price for the return of the soldier is higher and
the motivation to kidnap additional soldiers increases.”
mentioning names, the committee criticized then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in
the chapter, claiming that his initial declaration that Israel will not
negotiate the release of Schalit and then engaging in talks with Hamas “weakened
Israel as well as its ability to deal with a kidnapping incident.”
report, the committee members mentioned the US’s declared policy of not
negotiating with terrorists as an example which the panel said was partially
responsible for minimizing the number of attempts to kidnap American
Since then though, not much has changed. Israel has not
established an official policy, nor has it set criteria for who can and cannot
be released from among the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it holds in its
What has happened is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak appointed
a committee led by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar to issue a series
of recommendations of what to do. These recommendations have not been made
public and like a number of committees set up by Barak, this one to was likely
set up for appearances.
There is still much that Israel itself can do.
All one had to do was watch the release of Schalit from captivity and the
release of the Palestinians from Israel.
While Schalit walked out pale,
skinny and shaking, many of the Palestinian prisoners appeared to be quite
“healthy,” in the weight context of the word. While Schalit was apparently
provided a radio and at times a TV, he was not allowed to enroll in university
studies like the Palestinian prisoners are allowed in Israeli jails.
defense officials wondered this week whether it might be time for this all to