My Word: The missing soldiers’ dilemma

Where is the Red Cross? Why is there no outrage over a genuine war crime in the UN?

Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin (photo credit: REUTERS,Courtesy)
Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin
(photo credit: REUTERS,Courtesy)
Among all the misconceptions about Israel – and there are many – the one that seems to be least corrected is the one of “Israel’s occupation of Gaza.” I doubt many of the protesters seen at rallies around the world carrying placards denouncing Israel’s “occupation” and “genocide” could answer the question: “How many Israeli soldiers are there currently in Gaza?” The answer is two. Both dead. Israel’s occupying force in Gaza amounts to one IDF officer and one staff-sergeant.
That’s it.
Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul were killed during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 and their bodies were abducted via terror tunnels, the same type of tunnel used to abduct IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006; the same type of tunnel that Hamas intended to use to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians in the communities near the de facto border of the de facto Palestinian state.
If Hamas were to hand over the bodies, or what remains of them, there would be zero Israeli soldiers on Gazan soil. It’s that simple. Or it should be. But Hamas does not work like that.
The terrorist organization, like Islamic State which is now increasingly challenging Hamas in Gaza, prefers psychological warfare – a form of mental torture for the families.
Hamas is demanding Israel release security prisoners in return for information about the fate of Goldin and Shaul. Note that it is not promising to hand over the bodies for burial, giving the families a measure of closure and a place to grieve. It says it will release details about the two.
This is not, of course, the first time Israel has been in such a situation.
Schalit’s release after five years came at a huge price which, some would argue, is still being paid. More than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists, including those with blood on their hands, were let out of Israeli prisons in return for Schalit. Many of them went on to commit more attacks.
Several, who have been rearrested, are on Hamas’s list of those it wants back before even talking about Goldin and Shaul.
The families’ situation is heartbreaking.
This week, Shaul’s mother could take the suffering in silence no more. At a press conference at the family’s home in Poriya, Zehava Shaul called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make more of an effort to secure the return of her son. She cannot even be sure, until she sees the body, that he is dead. Although the IDF Rabbinate declared both Goldin and Shaul as “fallen soldiers whose place of burial is not known” – not a ruling it makes lightly – Hamas, as part of the torture, occasionally hints that the soldiers might have been taken and held alive.
Among the excruciating dilemmas the families face is the need to keep the matter in the public’s awareness – to keep the names and faces familiar – while recognizing that the greater the public pressure, the higher the price Hamas will demand, until it could reach a level that the public, however sympathetic, will not be willing to pay, and no prime minister will be willing to order.
Similarly, it’s possible that there are back-channel discussions and too much public outcry could harm them.
In addition to Goldin and Shaul, Hamas is apparently also holding two Israeli citizens – one Jewish, one Arab – who appear to have crossed into Gaza of their own accord. The family of Avera Mengistu says that he suffered from psychological problems and is being held against his will; the family of the Beduin man is not speaking about the circumstances of his disappearance and has not revealed his identity.
These families are obviously also suffering, but their cases are not the same as those of soldiers killed and abducted (I’m still assuming in that order) during active service.
The situation of Goldin and Shaul is reminiscent of that of IDF soldiers Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, killed by Hezbollah and abducted from the Israeli side of the northern border in 2006 in an incident that sparked the Second Lebanon War. Hezbollah, like its Iranian-financed ugly sister Hamas, also refused to release information about their fates, to the extent that the country waited with bated breath on the day their bodies were finally returned two years later (in exchange for five terrorists), not knowing for sure whether they were dead or alive.
It is highly unlikely that either Goldin or Shaul could have survived the attacks in which they were so ghoulishly abducted.
Sixty-seven IDF soldiers were killed in the 50-day war in 2014, but when Mary McGowan Davis, who chaired the UN Human Rights Council commission investigating Operation Protective Edge, issued her report six months ago (basing much of it on evidence provided by Hamas and NGOs like Breaking the Silence), she commented: “When the safety of an Israeli soldier is at stake, all the rules seem to be disregarded.”
It is not a crime to try to stop your soldiers from being killed and/or kidnapped and held for ransom. Indiscriminately launching more than 5,000 rockets and mortars on a civilian population is a war crime, and Hamas is as guilty as hell. Hiding in hospitals and stockpiling weapons in schools is a war crime, and Hamas is guilty as only Israel charged.
At the outbreak of the First Lebanon War, I thought there was nothing worse than a soldier being killed.
I was wrong. Three families from that war still do not know the fate of their loved ones – Yehuda Katz, Zachary Baumel and Zvi Feldman. They have been missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub, shortly after the war began in June 1982. Similarly, the fate of IAF navigator Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986, also remains a mystery.
Unlike most soldiers declared dead but whose burial site is not known, the families of these MIAs will always be plagued by an element of doubt: Are they really dead? It’s not that their whereabouts are unknown. Someone knows and is not telling. PLO head Yasser Arafat gave Israel half of Baumel’s dog tag in December 1993, during the early days of the Oslo Accords. Someone still has the other half, and knowledge of where his body is buried.
The turmoil in Syria makes finding out the truth that much harder. Iran, which is likely to know more than it is revealing, also has no incentive to show a moral side. Just this week, with disturbing shallowness, the UN International Atomic Agency voted to close its investigation into Iran’s past military nuclear program. It wasn’t scared of what it might find as much as it was scared that this would scupper the chance to proceed with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is likely to be highly lucrative for its powerful backer states.
The chaos in the Arab world makes it even more important not to miss the chance to gain the release of the bodies of the missing soldiers before the dominant actors are ousted by forces even more evil. As US Secretary of State John Kerry never tires of warning Israel, Islamic State could take over the West Bank from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party. It could also supersede Hamas in power and brutality in Gaza. (Unlike Kerry, most Israelis see this as a good reason not to completely hand over control of the area to Abbas and pray that the 80-year-old, well past his elected term in office, will somehow manage to keep order.) The current situation gives a new twist to the game theory known as The Prisoner Dilemma. It is as twisted as can be. Writing this column, I am torn between wanting to draw attention to the plight of the families of the missing soldiers and the fear that I could be unintentionally raising the stakes.
Several years ago, when Schalit was still being held captive without any contact with the outside world, I spoke to an Israeli mathematician who specialized in “game theories” (although, sadly, this is neither a game nor theoretical).
Tossing around ideas of steps Israel could take to try to secure Schalit’s release, he suggested busing some of the key Hamas prisoners to the border with Gaza and showing their families how easy it would be to have them back home: Just let go of Schalit.
Today, the same idea could be enacted via the social media: Aim directly at the families of the Gazans.
Let them know that it is their own leaders who are preventing the return of their loved ones.
The Hamas terrorists are not worth a scrap of information in a sick mind game, but some – numbers and names to be determined by Israel, not Hamas – could be released for the bodies of Goldin and Shaul.
While Shaul’s mother, understandably, made a plea directly to the prime minister, I think other addresses should be kept in mind.
Where is the Red Cross? Why is there no outrage over a genuine war crime in the UN? Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch should be screaming that basic human rights are being violated. The Palestinians who threaten to seek Israel’s prosecution under the Geneva Convention show no compunction or compassion when it comes to Israelis, stolen in a Zombie-like attack by their own side.
And those besmirching the country at every opportunity should keep in mind that nobody wants the last two IDF soldiers out of Gaza more than Israel.