When Gilad Shalit was abducted in June 2006, the first people to learn the captive soldier’s name were West Bank settlers. As reporters awaited an initial briefing on the incident by Dan Halutz, then Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, a news agency based in the settlements sent the following beeper message: “The name of the abducted soldier is Gidon Shalit, 19, from Mitzpeh Hila in the Galilee. His family has been notified.”
A few minutes later, another beeper message corrected the soldier’s first name. At that point, the meeting with Halutz had begun. No one dreamed that more than 1,900 days would elapse before Shalit returned.
The terrorists captured Shalit by crossing the border from the Gaza Strip before sunrise through a tunnel hundreds of meters long. The tunnel had been dug under the border fence over the course of months. When the terrorists surfaced in Israeli territory, they came up behind the IDF troops, who were facing Gaza.
At 5:13 A.M., three separate groups of terrorists attacked Shalit’s tank and a guard tower, along with an empty armored personnel carrier the IDF had placed there as a decoy. All three targets were hit by antitank fire. Shalit’s tank went up in flames, triggering a fire extinguisher.
Because the tank’s engine had stopped working, the vehicle’s ventilation system did not work, creating suffocating conditions inside. Two other soldiers in the tank, Lt. Hanan Barak and Staff Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, jumped out and were gunned down on the spot. Shalit emerged from the tank a little later, after a terrorist threw grenades into the tank’s turret, and was taken captive. A fourth soldier who was wounded and unconscious was later rescued from the tank by Israeli soldiers.
Within six minutes of the assault, two terrorists had returned to Gaza with the wounded Shalit. IDF officers recall the period that followed as chaotic, noting that it took time before they realized a soldier was missing.
The incident occurred less than a year after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. To some extent, the country was paying the price for repressing concern over the security situation in Gaza. Because the government considered it important to present the disengagement from Gaza as an accomplishment, the dangers posed by the new situation were played down. The defensive deployment around Gaza was only partial, and the IDF was not allowed to enter the strip to foil terrorist attacks.
At his briefing after Shalit’s abduction, Halutz told reporters the IDF had no advance warning of an attack. This enraged Yuval Diskin, then head of the Shin Bet security service. In fact, the Shin Bet had given the army detailed, specific information about an expected attack. Based on this warning, the army had increased its troop levels somewhat along a 14-kilometer stretch of the border. But Halutz’s lie was quickly exposed when reporters interviewed the wounded member of Shalit’s tank crew: He confirmed that the sector had been on alert for a possible abduction.
Ultimately, none of the senior officers involved paid the price of the debacle. Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, who was GOC Southern Command at the time, was later nominated as IDF chief of staff, though his nomination was later withdrawn for unrelated reasons. Aviv Kochavi, then commander of the Gaza division, now heads Military Intelligence.
A subsequent investigation found that another tank commander actually saw the terrorists crossing back into Gaza with Shalit, but did not open fire because he was awaiting permission. In retrospect, this might have foiled the abduction, but it could also have resulted in Shalit’s death.
The probe also found that despite the abduction warning, intelligence monitoring of the sector wasn’t beefed up. A critical half-hour that could have been used to put the troops on high alert was consequently lost.
The day after the abduction, a defense official well-versed in hostage negotiations advised then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to close a deal immediately. “Give Hamas 250 people and it will be over,” he said. “Otherwise, it will take you three years and cost you 1,000 prisoners.”
But Olmert opted instead to exploit the kidnapping to try to crush Hamas. The rest is history.
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