A dispute within the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff over the timing of the arrest of two Hamas operatives delayed the procurement of intelligence that could have prevented the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, defense sources told Haaretz.

Just a few hours after the kidnapping occurred, on June 25, 2006, one of the operatives gave the Shin Bet security service detailed information about the plot. Some IDF officers thus believe that had the arrest not been postponed for 24 hours, this information would have been obtained in time to foil the abduction.

A few weeks before the kidnapping, the Shin Bet gave the IDF a general warning about a major attack planned by Hamas and other terrorist organizations along the Gaza-Israel border. Then, slightly more than 24 hours before the abduction, new information came in.

The daily Maariv reported on Friday that on that night, June 23, the IDF arrested brothers Mustafa and Osama Muammar near the Gazan town of Rafah. The article claimed that Mustafa broke under interrogation on the night of June 24, a few hours before the kidnapping, and gave the Shin Bet detailed information about the plan. The Shin Bet relayed the information, but it got "stuck" somewhere along the way and never reached the soldiers in field.

But Haaretz queried five security officials, some very senior, who are well-versed in the affair, and their version of events is different. They said the information Mustafa Muammar gave on Saturday night was fairly general. Only on Sunday - after the abduction had already occurred, and after the Shin Bet had applied "exceptional interrogation methods" - did he break down and reveal the critical details, even though the interrogators did not tell him that the kidnapping had already occurred.

The Shin Bet declined to comment.

The officers' version of events raises an obvious question: What if the Muammars had been arrested sooner? At that point, a mere nine months after the Israel pullout from Gaza, the IDF was being very cautious about arrests deep inside the Strip. Israeli intelligence had vague information about the Muammars' connection with a planned attack and had decided to arrest them in the hope of learning more, but they lived 1.5 kilometers from the Israeli border, a distance at which the army was reluctant to operate at that time.

On the morning of June 22, officers from the Southern Command and the Gaza Division proposed arresting the two that night. Moshe Kaplinsky, then deputy chief of staff, concurred. But the heads of Military Intelligence and the Operations Directorate dissented, saying more preparations were needed.

Then-chief of staff Dan Halutz nevertheless okayed the operation for that night, as did then-defense minister Amir Peretz. Later, however, Halutz reversed himself and postponed the arrest by 24 hours, as MI and the Operations Directorate had urged. Thus the Muammars were arrested only on the night of June 23, and their crucial information was not obtained in time.

Was this a critical mistake? One officer involved in the decision responded: "That's hindsight. There are a lot of 'ifs' and 'maybes' here ... You have to remember that none of us knew at the time that we were talking about a kidnapping plan, or that Mustafa Muammar was directly involved in it. The General Staff conducted a pertinent discussion about the force's preparedness for the mission. When we decided to postpone it, we could not have know that time was of the essence."