Nearly a week after the kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank, Israel seems convinced that Hamas is to blame and will soon issue a major demand: Release hundreds or even thousands of Palestinian prisoners. The group has never made a secret of its intent to abduct Israelis; it has increasingly touted kidnapping as a strategy to win the release of its people behind bars.
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In Gaza, Hamas has practiced kidnapping in public to cheering crowds. Last year, the organization even distributed an 18-page “Field Manual for Kidnapping” to its Qassam Brigades, providing detailed explanations on how to target Israeli soldiers, when to kidnap (rainy days are best) and how to avoid being caught (don’t use the Internet or phone).
If Hamas has not abducted anyone in the past eight years, it’s not for lack of trying. According to a study published this week by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Israeli security forces have foiled at least 48 kidnapping attempts since January 2013, 14 of them this year alone.
And even if Hamas has not claimed responsibility for last week’s events, it certainly has celebrated them. After the youths disappeared, a spokesman for the families of Palestinian security prisoners, while handing out candies in a protest tent in Gaza, told the international press that kidnapping soldiers was “the only way to free our sons from occupation’s prisons.”
“Israeli society simply doesn’t seem to understand exactly how important the prisoners issue is to Palestinian society,” says Lt. Gen. (ret.) Orit Adato, a former commissioner of the Israel Prison Service and a member of the steering committee of the Deborah Forum, a group promoting the advancement of women in foreign policy and national security.
“There are so many prisoners that the situation affects every Palestinian family, directly and indirectly. And the prisoners are considered the ones who are paying the price for the Palestinian struggle, so the motivation to free them is high.”
According to Adato, despite Israel’s efforts, Palestinian prisoners are in regular contact with activists on the outside. “And they have every reason to encourage their supporters to kidnap Israelis,” she says.
Yet over the years, while nearly two dozen Israelis, most of them soldiers, have been kidnapped in the West Bank and Gaza, only two (soldiers Nachshon Wachsman and Gilad Shalit) have been held for ransom. The others were abducted and killed soon afterwards.
“Given the importance of the prisoners for Palestinian society,” says Col. (res.) Reuven Erlich, director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, “there is no doubt that the currency of a kidnapped soldier is higher than that of a dead soldier. But it takes much more than motivation to actually carry out a kidnapping. It takes careful, detailed planning, including finding a hiding place that Israel cannot find, despite its effective intelligence.”
Operating according to the manual
The fact that three youths have been missing for days reinforces the idea that they have been abducted by a well-prepared unit, Erlich says. It’s doubtful this was a spur-of-the-moment decision by a rogue group.
And the presumed kidnappers are “operating according to the manual” and are lying low, adds Adato. “They’ve ditched the car. They have maintained communications silence to avoid being detected and to tease Israeli nerves.”
According to Col. (ret.) Miri Eisen, a former military and government spokeswoman and member of the Deborah Forum, the kidnappings of Israelis that began in earnest in the ‘80s are the direct continuation of hijackings, which also began as attempts to ransom prisoners. She cites the hijackings of Sabena Flight 571 in 1972 and Air France Flight 139 in 1976 — which led to the famed Operation Entebbe.
The Sabena flight was commandeered en route to Tel Aviv from Vienna. After landing in Tel Aviv, the hijackers separated the Jewish and non-Jewish passengers and demanded the release of 315 convicted Palestinian terrorists. Israeli commandos stormed the plane, rescuing all the passengers. They killed two terrorists and captured two alive.
Air France 139, with 246 passengers and a crew of 12 en route to Paris from Tel Aviv, was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, where the hijackers released 148 non-Jews and non-Israelis and demanded the release of 53 Palestinian prisoners. After nearly a week in Entebbe, Israeli forces conducted one of the most daring rescue attempts of all time, sustaining only one civilian death and one military casualty — the death of Yonatan Netanyahu, the older brother of Israel’s current prime minister.
It was at Entebbe, says one security expert, that Israel “made its real policy on negotiating with terrorists clear. [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin agreed to the mission only after he was convinced that it had a good chance of success,” says the expert, who requested anonymity.
“The principle that he established is still the one we follow: If we have the intelligence and the operational capability, we’ll use as much force as we have to in order to rescue the hostages — civilians or soldiers — even if it’ll be costly. If we don’t have the intelligence and the capability, we’ll negotiate a prisoner exchange.”
In the Wachsman case, “We had the chance and we took it, even though we failed and Wachsman and Nir Poraz, the commander of the rescue force, were killed,” the expert says. “In the case of Gilad Shalit, we didn’t have the ability to conduct a mission. So we negotiated and released prisoners.”
Wachsman was kidnapped by Hamas in October 1994 and was killed by his captors in the failed rescue attempt. Shalit was captured by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid via underground tunnels near Gaza. Hamas held him captive for more than five years until his release in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
“We huff and bluff. But contrary to popular wisdom, Israel, unlike, for example, the U.S., has never said that we won’t negotiate. In the end, of course we negotiate and release prisoners,” Eisen says.
“That is the promise that the IDF makes – not so much with the soldiers themselves as with their parents. That the nation really will do everything to bring back our soldiers. Alive or even dead. We are the only nation in the West that has compulsory conscription for both men and women, and this promise is the only way that we can maintain it.”
Thus, says Eisen, the Shalit case wasn’t a precedent, but it certainly whet the Palestinians’ appetite for more kidnappings. “Our commitment to our soldiers is both our strength and our flaw,” she adds.