Analysis: Israel's hostage complex

When a soldier is captured, the system goes into shock.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
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 being captured. In such a case, soldiers are told (although never officially) that their comrades will be given the order to rain fire on the abduction team, without consideration for the poor soldier's life. The underlying rationale is that the nation can bear the deaths of soldiers, but not the uncertain fate of a captured serviceman.
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Exactly 30 years after the heroic rescue of Air France hostages from Entebbe by an airborne IDF force, Israel still suffers from a hostage complex. Ongoing warfare at varying levels, which has been Israel's norm for its entire modern history - including hostage-taking, soldiers missing-in-action and others held as prisoners-of-war - are all a tragic part of the normal scheme of things. Israel regularly captures hundreds of terrorists and other prisoners, and so, the IDF's superiority notwithstanding, it can't be illogical for things to also happen the other way around. But when it does happen, the system is totally unprepared for the shock. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Sunday that he had given orders not to negotiate over Cpl. 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 Tzipi Livni is ringing up UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan? Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned anyone who has any influence over Shalit's fate that "his blood will be on his and his leaders' heads," although Peretz is the last person who will sanction a series of summary revenge killings. And it's not only the miscalculated bluster of politicians. The media is also treating the capture as the central event at Kerem Shalom, 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 learned 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 a hurriedly prepared operation, like the one that failed to rescue Golani Brigade soldier Nachshon 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 Hizbullah got dozens of live members back in exchange for the bodies of three soldiers, and the return of Elhanan Tannenbaum, who in 2004 had allegedly been tricked into going to Beirut in the hope of carrying out a drug deal. While dozens of Kassam rockets fell daily on Sderot and the neighboring kibbutzim for months and, miraculously, casualties haven't been serious, the missiles haven't warranted a major operation in the Gaza Strip. If Sunday's raid on the IDF outpost had failed, the IDF would probably not be poised to strike now. But because the Palestinians have captured a soldier, the situation has changed completely. But should that warrant an operation that might drastically alter the balance between Israel and the Palestinians as well as among the Palestinians themselves and almost definitely exact a heavy price in Israeli and Palestinian lives?