Security and Defense: Goodwill gestures
In March 2006, Moti Elmoz, then a colonel, was commander of the IDF's Jordan Valley Brigade and oversaw the successful raid on a Palestinian prison in Jericho, during which the military captured Ahmed Sa'adat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and mastermind of the assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
Over three years have passed since that daring operation, and today Elmoz is a brigadier-general and deputy commander of the IDF's Central Command. This week, instead of supervising arrest operations, Elmoz oversaw the removal of over 50 dirt roadblocks throughout the West Bank as part of an effort to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Sa'adat, sentenced last year to 30 years in prison, is rumored to be on the list of prisoners that Hamas is demanding be released in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Schalit.
He is not the only arch-terrorist on the list, and on Wednesday Hamas claimed it was suspending the negotiations after Israel refused to release four other prisoners who, all together, were responsible for dozens of deaths via suicide bombings - including the ones at Jerusalem's CafÃ© Moment, CafÃ© Hillel and Hebrew University.
WHILE ISRAEL is not officially responding to any of these reports, the IDF is gearing up for the potential consequences of a mass prisoner release and is finding itself in a dilemma.
On the one hand, it has preferred over the years that the government refrain from mass prisoner releases, particularly to the West Bank. On the other hand, it is aware that such a release would boost Hamas's popularity on the streets of Jenin and Nablus, and will need to be creative to counter that boost by making simultaneous gestures to Abbas and Fatah.
While the release of prisoners to the West Bank will likely not undermine the IDF's success in its war on terror there - due to a combination of the construction of the security barrier, operational freedom in West Bank cities and effective operations by PA forces - it is prepared for the possibility that freed prisoners will return to terror activity.
Israel knows this from experience. There was, of course, the "Jibril deal" in 1985, when Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for two IDF soldiers. Among those released were some of the future leaders of the first and second intifadas, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual founding father of Hamas.
But one doesn't have to go back that far.
In 2004, Israel released hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for shady businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers. Among those released to the West Bank were Muataz Halil, Hasin Garda'at and Muza'at Saba - three senior Islamic Jihad operatives who were instrumental in rebuilding the terror group's infrastructure in Nablus and Hebron.
"This is what happens when terrorists are released in such deals," a senior officer explained. "They immediately return to terror activity."
In addition to preparing for a potential increase in terrorist activity, the defense establishment is also looking for new gestures it can make to Abbas to bolster his standing among the Palestinian people.
While most of the media focused Wednesday on Netanyahu's dramatic declaration regarding a 10-month freeze on settlement construction, the IDF made an announcement that made little noise but was quite significant, regarding gestures it was making ahead of the Id al-Adha holiday this weekend.
The gestures included lifting 50 dirt roadblocks in the West Bank, bringing the total number Israel has removed over the past two years to over 200 and including one roadblock on the Jenin-Tulkarm road. This is in addition to the 27 manned checkpoints that the IDF has lifted since 2007.
These gestures alone, though, may not suffice - and Israel, according to some reports, will likely also be asked to release additional Fatah prisoners for Abbas following the mass release in exchange for Schalit.
Other moves are already in the planning, including the deployment of another US-trained Palestinian battalion in the West Bank in the coming weeks, and the possible transfer of control over some cities to the PA. This will be the fifth battalion trained by US Gen. Keith Dayton. Another one will then depart for four months of training in Jordan.
THE RELEASE of Marwan Barghouti is also believed to have the potential to counter a Hamas buildup. The former Tanzim leader is viewed by some Israeli and Palestinian leaders as having the political clout needed to reconcile between Hamas and Fatah and ensure that Abbas remains in power.
If the Schalit deal goes through in the coming weeks, what plays in favor of Abbas is the postponement in Palestinian elections, which will not be held as planned in January. As a result, there is a hope in Jerusalem, Washington and Ramallah that the effects of the deal with Hamas will wear off by the time elections are held in the Palestinian Authority.
From the standpoint of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a prisoner swap deal would be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it would gain him recognition among most Israelis (the ones who support the move) as the leader who was willing to take the brave step and succeeded where others had failed before him and after less than a year in office. On the other hand, Netanyahu holds himself as a hardliner who has preached against surrendering to terrorism. Caving in to Hamas's demands would be perceived as doing just that.
Ultimately, though, a swap with Hamas for Schalit calls into question the legitimacy of Israel's continued blockade on the Gaza Strip.
While Gaza is far from falling into a humanitarian crisis, Israel only transfers the bare necessities to Gaza, including food, medicine and basic supplies. Computers, electronics and raw materials all come into Gaza via the network of tunnels Hamas operates under the Philadelphi Corridor.
Schalit's captivity, as well as the continued Kassam rocket attacks on the South, have served in recent years as the grounds for the blockade on Gaza. If Schalit is returned and the lull in Kassam attacks continues, Israel will find itself under major international pressure to ease up restrictions on the Strip.
But any such shift will further solidify Hamas's rule in Gaza as the Palestinian group that can not only get prisoners released, but also get Israel to lift its blockade. Where Abbas fails, Hamas will say it succeeds. As a result, the lifting of the blockade will further undermine Abbas and weaken Fatah.
This multitude of interests is quite a lot to put on the shoulders of one young soldier.