The principle turned on its maker
Ronen Bergman places a mirror in front of the Israeli reader and the image reflected back is not flattering. Sleman al-Shafhe describes the effect of the Gilad Shalit affair on the more than one million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.
Medinat Yisrael Ta'aseh Hakol: Hakrav Hahashai al Hashevu'im Vehane'edarim (By Any Means Necessary: Israel's Covert War for Its POWs and MIAs ), by Ronen BergmanKinneret Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew ), 637 pages, NIS 98
Mabat Me'aza (Captive: A View From Gaza ), by Sleman Al-ShafheYedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew ), 188 pages, NIS 98
As these lines are being written, Gilad Shalit is still a captive of Hamas, and Israel waits to hear whether the Islamist Palestinian organization will accept the terms it has set for an exchange of Palestinian prisoners that would make the Israeli soldier?s release possible. Although a deal could be completed by the time you read this, it?s also true that more than once in the past, the news that an agreement was about to be signed ended in disappointment. Last March, for example, attorney Eli Zohar informed Noam Shalit, Gilad?s father, on behalf of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, that "possibly the deal will be clinched tonight." That night, as we remember, went by and the deal did not go through. Whether Shalit is returned in the coming days, or the sides end up returning to the negotiations facilitated by a German mediator, the affair meshes with a long series of blunders and loss of good sense that have long characterized the government?s approach to the subject of prisoners and abductees.
Our respective governments have taken, and continue to take, advantage of the public's short memory and of their own authority to employ censorship. This has made it possible to hide the blunders they have made in efforts to negotiate the release of Israeli soldiers and civilians taken prisoner or abducted by enemy states or terror organizations.
This is why reading Ronen Bergman's "By Any Means Necessary," which confronts the reader with a concentrated dose of all such cases, is so disturbing. It is impossible not to agree with Bergman, a commentator on intelligence affairs for Yedioth Ahronoth, who concludes his book with the statement that, "if we follow the sequence of dealing with prisoners and MIA affairs, it appears that the sacred principle of 'We don't abandon soldiers in the field' has turned on its maker. Only in recent years has the principle become the excuse, or at least trigger, for two failed wars. From a painful humanitarian issue, a natural byproduct of wars and the ongoing conflict, the affairs of Israel's various prisoners and MIAs and the attempts to move them out of a state of stasis have often become a dominant factor that itself makes history and leads to escalation of the conflict."
An excessive price?
The slide down the slippery slope that has so many times ended in the payment of unreasonable prices for the release of prisoners, and even dead bodies, can be attributed to the weakness of national leaders, who have not learned how to deal with pressure from the families, as well as to poor judgment, rigid thinking and rivalry among the various intelligence agencies.
"The cult of the dead bones has become life-threatening," writes Bergman, citing the incident in which fighters from the Nahal Brigade were sent to rescue the crew of a tank that was destroyed in the first hours of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Those who sent them knew "they were on their way to gather pieces of corpses and that there were no living survivors." Another soldier was killed on that mission, and his comrades were wounded.
"You have an exceptional attitude on this issue," Dr. August Hanning, chief of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND ) told Jacob Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, regarding the difference between Hezbollah's attitude toward the remains of its own dead (including a son of Hassan Nasrallah ) and the way Israelis are so often willing to pay a high price for the return of Israel Defense Forces soldiers for burial in Israel.
The data reveal the distance Israeli governments have slid down that slippery slope. On January 1, 1970, Fatah abducted night watchman Shmuel Rosenwasser from the northern Galilee town of Metula. Fourteen months later, Rosenwasser was swapped for a single Fatah man, Mahmoud Hijazi. On March 14, 1979, soldier Avraham Amram, who had been taken prisoner in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril's organization, was released. This time, the price was 76 Fatah operatives, 20 of whom had "blood on their hands." In May of 1985, the notorious "Jibril deal" went through. It involved the return to Israel of three soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists.
The excessive price Israel is willing to pay for the release of soldiers or bodies has significance beyond the numerical asymmetry. The release of terrorists serving time for murder increases the supply of terrorists motivated to attack Israelis again. This is one of the main reasons the current Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, opposes a deal with Hamas for the release of Shalit in exchange for 980 Palestinian prisoners.
"Of the 364 who were released in the Tennenbaum deal in January 2004 who were infiltrated back into the territories, 30 percent were arrested again," writes Bergman about the case of Elhanan Tennenbaum, a businessman and reserve army officer kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2000. "Of the 238 released in the Jibril deal who were returned to the territories, 48 percent were imprisoned for a second time." After his release, one of them, Louay Saadi, established a broad infrastructure for attacks in the northern West Bank that led to the deaths of 30 Israelis and the wounding of 300 more. He was killed in 2005.
The decisions by Israeli governments concerning prisoners merit an academic study to establish the diplomatic and political background to a policy that seems to be very problematic. In the meantime, we have to content ourselves with Bergman's book, which presents the facts and paints quite a broad picture of the sequence of events in each case in which the government conducted negotiations for the release of prisoners and abductees.
Though much of the material has previously been published elsewhere, Bergman succeeds in casting new light on the subject and revealing details not previously known. He provides new details about the abduction of Ahmed Jibril's nephew from the heart of Beirut in 1985; about the determination that the MIAs from the battle of Sultan Yacoub, in 1982, were no longer among the living; and about a document on those MIAs whose conclusions were dictated by the people who had ordered it. Bergman also reveals that Yitzhak Rabin offered to "forgive" Austrian president Kurt Waldheim his Nazi past if he would help obtain details about the fate of missing air force navigator Ron Arad.
Bergman holds up a mirror before Israeli readers, and the image reflected back is not flattering. The Israel that emerges from this book has repeatedly failed to formulate a rational policy, leaving the country's leaders to make mistakes.
Bergman quotes Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council: "There is no issue on which Israel is in a position of greater inferiority than prisoner deals. All the pressure is on us, and when you're discussing only this you really do arrive at insane formulas, like what Hamas is demanding in the Shalit deal."
It would be appropriate, therefore, for those who are supposed to be making the decisions on these matters to read this book. Perhaps they will agree with Bergman, who writes in his epilogue: "This book is a call to restore the discussion to rational but humane lines ... A very thin line runs between the solidarity deriving from the good deed of ransoming prisoners and the chilling panic that deters politicians from doing what is necessary and saying what should be said, no matter how difficult."
A rumor circulating in Gaza
Another book about the Shalit affair has been accorded a great deal of publicity mainly because it led to Channel 2 News' decision to fire its author, journalist Sleman Al-Shafhe, who had reported from Gaza for the channel. The program let him go when they learned he was about to publish a book on the Shalit affair that would include information he had not passed along to the station, having held it back until he had published it in "Captive: A View from Gaza." Al-Shafhe sued the station in labor court, which determined in mid-December that his dismissal was legal.
All this would not be relevant to a review of his book were it not for the testimony of the news division's CEO Avi Weiss, which places the book in a problematic light: "I will tell you about the forums I participated in, with the top security people in this country," Weiss told the court. "These are the highest military brass you can think of. People who wear uniforms and also people who don't ... and there it was said explicitly by the most senior people -- perhaps the most senior person in uniform and the most senior not in uniform -- it was spoken there in jest about how unserious this book is."
I don't know the basis for the opinions of these "top security people" regarding the seriousness of the book. What is clear is that Al-Shafhe's work purports to paint a very detailed picture of the conditions of Shalit's captivity, the state of his health, his psychological state and the dynamic that has developed between him and his captors. Al-Shafhe says he based his account on numerous sources in Gaza City, Rafah, Cairo and throughout the Arab world. These, the author states, will continue to remain anonymous, "for understandable reasons, and at their request."
Weiss also told the court that when he asked Al-Shafhe about his sources for some of the stories in the book, Al-Shafhe replied, "That's the rumor circulating in Gaza." Weiss went on to say that he had asked Al-Shafhe in astonishment: "Are you writing a book that you are saying is a rumor? That is based on rumors circulating among the elite in Gaza? He said to me, 'That's why its subtitle is ... 'A View from Gaza.'"
Al-Shafhe describes what supposedly happened in hiding places where Shalit was held. The descriptions are detailed and specific, and written as though Al-Shafhe had been there in the room, or as though it were Shalit's captors revealing these things in inner sanctums. The problem, of course, is that Shalit's guards are cut off from the outside world, as Al-Shafhe himself states, and they therefore cannot verify or contradict the story.
Al-Shafhe also describes in great detail Shalit's reactions to certain events, and even includes exact quotations of what the captive soldier is supposed to have said. "Shalit was still wounded in his arm and was suffering from a skin rash that bothered him as much as the wound. His psychological state was very bad. Every few hours he suffered an anxiety attack. He would scream loudly and cry out, 'Mom ... Mom ...' with no response," the author writes. Elsewhere, he states: "With no connection to his captor's threats, the fear of death was reflected in Shalit's everyday behavior. His situation grew worse day by day and his hysterical and strange behavior, as it was described to me, aroused real concern among his captors about his mental health. When he fell asleep, his sleep was always short and restless and he would awaken from it screaming and drenched in perspiration." And later in the book: "Every time the door of his small room opened for the purpose of bringing in food and water, he would burst out crying hysterically and plead: 'I don't want to die ... I don't want to die.'"
It is, of course, hard to know what is really going on in Shalit's place of captivity, and it is also possible that these things were told to Al-Shafhe by people interested in creating the sense that Shalit was on the verge of psychological collapse in order to hasten the negotiations and achieve a better price in return for his release.
Al-Shafhe also writes about the preparations in Gaza for the June 2006 raid that culminated in Shalit's capture and the way it was carried out. This description seems more reliable than the details about his behavior in captivity, and it appears the author does indeed have sources who had been in on the secret and shared details with him that had not been revealed previously.
He presents the theory that Israel intended to take advantage of Operation Cast Lead last winter to bomb the building where the IDF thought Shalit was being held, in order to kill him. "Many sources claimed to me that Israel was not interested in paying the price tag attached to the release of the Israeli soldier and wanted to take advantage of the war to get rid of him, and afterward to cast the blame for his death on Hamas," the author writes. It is not clear who the "many sources" are, or what is behind this theory.
The most interesting and credible part of "Captive" is not about Shalit himself, but rather describes the effect the Shalit affair has had on the more than one million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. The IDF attacks and the siege Israel imposed on the Strip after Shalit was abducted have constituted a real disaster for Gaza's residents. Al-Shafhe, who covered the Gaza Strip before the abduction, paints a bleak picture of the conditions and mood there over the past three years, based on interviews with Gazans. It seems we will never know whether all of Al-Shafhe's descriptions reflect the reality or are merely figments of the imaginations of anonymous sources. In any case, as he writes in his book, "This story has not yet ended."
Reuven Pedatzur is a lecturer in the political science department at Tel Aviv University.
Haaretz Books, January 2010, email@example.com
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