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It's talked about in hushed voices during the dead hours before dawn of a particularly lonely guard shift, "Nohal Hannibal" - the Hannibal Directive - The rumored standard procedure in the eventuality of an IDF soldier's kidnap. In such a case soldiers are told, though never officially, that their comrades will be given the order to shoot and hail fire down on the kidnapping team, without consideration for the poor soldier's life. The underlying rationale is that the nation can take its toll of soldiers' lives, but the uncertain fate of a kidnapped serviceman is almost too unbearable.
Exactly thirty years after the heroic rescue of the Air France hostages by an airborne IDF force from Entebbe in Uganda, Israel still suffers from a hostage complex.
Ongoing warfare, at varying levels, being Israel's normal existence for its entire history, hostage-taking, missing in action and prisoners of war will all be a tragic part of the normal scheme of things. Israel regularly captures hundreds of terrorists and other prisoners, the IDF's superiority notwithstanding; it can't be illogical for things to happen also the other way around.
But when it does happen, the system is totally unprepared for the shock. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he had given orders not to negotiate over Corporal Gilad Shalit's life, while it's clear that if offered a quick diplomatic way out of the tangle, Israel will take it.
Or isn't that the reason that Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni is ringing up Koffi Annan.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned that anyone who has any influence over Shalit's fate, "his blood will be on his and his leaders' heads," though he is the last person who will sanction a series of summary revenge killings. And it's not only the miscalculated blusters of politicians, the media are also treating the kidnap as the central event at Kerem Shalom yesterday, much worse than the deaths of Lt. Hanan Barak and St. Sgt. Pavel Slotsker or the humiliation of the IDF by terrorists.
Once again it's the Entebbe syndrome. Israel still hasn't learnt how to come to terms with a situation where a soldier or even a citizen is in enemy hands. The first instinct is to launch an unprepared and clumsy operation, like the one that failed to rescue Golani soldier Nahshon Wachsman in October 1994 and resulted in the death of one of his would-be rescuers, Nir Poraz.
When that proves to be impossible, due to a lack of intelligence or the fact that the prisoners have been spirited away to Beirut or some other inaccessible hole, the leadership suddenly loses its backbone and is prepared to pay almost any price. That's how the Hizbullah got dozens of live members back in return for the bodies of three soldiers and one crook, Elhanan Tennenbaum who had been tricked to Beirut in the hope of carrying out a drug deal.
Dozens of Kassam missiles have fallen daily on Sderot and the neighboring kibbutzim for months. Miraculously casualties haven't been serious, but that hasn't yet warranted a major operation in the Gaza Strip. If Sunday's raid on the IDF outpost had failed would the IDF be poised now to strike?
Now, the fact that the Palestinians have captured one soldier means the entire situation has changed. But should that warrant an operation that might drastically alter the balance between Israel and the Palestinians and among the Palestinians themselves and almost definitely exact a heavy price in Israeli and Palestinian lives?
The Talmud and later works of Jewish law contain strict rules on the conduct of Jewish community leaders when dealing with hostage situations and the correct price to pay for their return. Perhaps its time for this generation's leadership to realize that Entebbe might have been a spectacular success, but in most situations, making a quick deal with the enemy might just be the best solution. It might also rob them of further victories.
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