Israel Learned the Wrong Lessons From the Shalit Affair

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Avera Mengistu, right, at a celebration. Photo from Avera Mengistu's Facebook page.

The disappearance of the young Israeli-Ethiopian Avera Mengistu in the Gaza Strip reflects strange conduct by the state and its security arms from the moment Mengistu entered the Gaza Strip in September 2014, through the tardy permit the court gave to release the information on Thursday.

The 28-year-old Mengistu crossed the fence into the Strip about two weeks following the cease-fire that ended the war between Israel and Hamas went into effect. It seemed that the background to the security establishment's controversial decision regarding Mengistu was motivated by events during the war, particularly the abduction of the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul by Hamas.

But in fact, the roots of the matter might go back even further to the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas in 2006.

In all of the Israel Defense Forces’ previous operations in the Gaza Strip, all actions were handled with determination not to repeat the Shalit affair and not to leave "assets" in Hamas hands that would allow Hamas to conduct negotiations that would put public pressure on the government, humiliate Israel and lead to the release of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists in prison in Israel.

Therefore, when Shaul’s body was abducted in battle in Gaza's Shujaiyeh neighborhood and Goldin’s body in a battle in Rafah, the army made huge efforts on two levels: First, to stop the abduction itself (mainly in Rafah, where the controversial “Hannibal procedure” was evoked, if not openly declared) and subsequently, to find any shred of proof that would allow the IDF Rabbinate and medical experts to declare the soldiers dead. The goal of these steps was to prevent Hamas from exerting effective pressure on Israel, which would force it to agree to major concessions in exchange for the release of the bodies.

The considerable and not very discriminating use of means of taking a negotiating card out of Hamas hands regarding soldiers is even more serious when it comes to a civilian, not to mention one who crossed the border into Gaza of his own volition, under circumstances that seem somewhat strange.

Here, the security establishment’s unholy trinity was put into action: issuing a blanket gag order on all details of the affair through the courts (this, despite a lively discussion on the matter among forums of Israeli-Ethiopians on social media and in some cases, reports on websites abroad); conveying partial details only to the media; and together with that, a disturbing attitude toward the family of the missing man.

There is, of course, inherent tension between the public’s right to know and the desire of the media to report, on the one hand, and the state’s considerations in negotiating with those who are holding an Israeli soldier or civilian, on the other. The public hysteria over the Shalit talks, which were accompanied by cynical actions on the part of the media and politicians, undoubtedly raised the price that Hamas extracted to push through the deal.

There was logic in the decision to sign the Shalit deal, considering the commitment the state showed to its soldiers. But Shalit’s return bore at a problematic cost: Not only the release of 1,027 terrorists, but the freeing of terror experts like Yahyah Sanwar, now a senior figure in the Hamas military wing and other released prisoners who lead Hamas' West Bank branch, which operates terror operations in the region via a special command headquarters in Gaza.

And still, the 10-month long blanket gag order is a manifestation of a very problematic policy. Once again the courts seem willing to too hastily approve the demands of the security establishment, answering its needs fully. Hovering in the background, the color of Mengistu’s skin cannot be ignored, especially in light of the protests of young Israelis of Ethiopian origin over the past two months. Would the security establishment have dared (and succeeded) in making a similar move if the family were veteran Israelis like Shalit’s Ehud Goldwasser’s or Eldad Regev’s? (The latter two are the families of soldiers abducted by Hezbollah at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.)

True, there is a difference. Mengistu, as noted is a civilian, who crossed the border of his own free will from unclear motives. It is also known that he suffered from various personal problems.

And yet, not only in any other case would the state have found it difficult to spread such a broad smokescreen over the case, but the public silence - and apparently a certain innocence on the part of the family of the missing man - made it possible for the security establishment to deal slowly with the matter and even to delay the first meeting with the family.

According to Mengistu’s brother, no less than two weeks went by before representatives of the security establishment’s negotiating team met with the family and took down the first details about their missing son. If the brother’s story is reliable, this is an inconceivable gap, which directly connects to the problematic judgement exercised by the political and military leadership throughout this affair.

Only on Thursday morning, when the gag order was lifted, did the Prime Minister's Bureau allow a senior defense official to briefly answer journalists' questions about the affair.

The family's complaints about the matter's handling may be partially related to the replacement of the government's coordinator on the matter of captives and missing. The new coordinator, Lior Lotan, only started his new job a few weeks after Mengistu crossed the border into Gaza. A short time afterward, Lotan contacted the Mengistu family, and has held regular contacts with them since then, including numerous meetings, as well as a visit by the family – accompanied by IDF soldiers – to the place where Mengistu crossed the fence.

A senior defense official rejected the claims of discrimination concerning Mengistu, saying great efforts have been made to solve the question of his disappearance: "Exactly as we would have acted for any other citizen," he said.

As for the more important question regarding the fate of the missing Israeli - the defense establishment does not sound optimistic. Hamas may have confirmed that it initially held him, but now claims to have released him once they determined he was not a soldier and has since disappeared. Israel continues to view Hamas as responsible for Mengistu's fate, and suspects Hamas' response is false.

But the Hamas response may well reflect two possibilities, neither of which is encouraging. First, Hamas is creating intentional confusion in an attempt to raise the price of the "asset" it holds. The other possibility: Something happened to Mengistu while he was imprisoned, and the organization is trying to hide this in order to avoid responsibility.

Along with the information released this morning on another Israeli, an Israeli Arab, who also crossed the fence into Gaza; it seems the situation has become rather complicated. Add to this the demand for the return of the bodies Goldin and Shaul, and Israel is still waiting and expects an answer about the two missing civilians - and all this will take a long time to come to a solution. 

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