Hamas Claims Its Prize and Deepens Its Isolation

By snatching an Israeli officer, the Islamist group has alienated powerful players on the Mideast stage and blown the cease-fire to smithereens.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli soldiers take part in a briefing at an army staging area along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 30, 2014.
Israeli soldiers take part in a briefing at an army staging area along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 30, 2014.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

To describe the assumed capture this morning of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin as a "game-changer" after all that has happened over the last twenty-five days in Gaza would be stating the obvious. As far as Hamas is concerned, the pounding that the beleaguered Gaza Strip has been taking – by now over 1,500 deaths, most of them civilians, the enormous investment it has made in around forty tunnels leading from Gaza, under the border to Israeli communities and outposts – was leading up to this: The capture of "another Shalit."

It is impossible to exaggerate the value of "another Shalit" to Hamas and other Palestinian militant organizations. Not only as a bargaining chip in a future prisoner exchange with Israel, or as scoring a blow on the Israeli side, but as the ultimate morale boost with much of Hamas' Palestinian constituency. Hamas' military wing (there are indications that the political leadership may not have been aware of the plans) took a massive gamble breaking the ceasefire brokered and guaranteed not only by the United States, the United Nations and Egypt, but also by its last remaining supporters: Qatar and Turkey. Now some Hamas spokesmen are trying to minimize the diplomatic damage by saying that the attack took place three hours earlier than when it actually did. It will make little difference – Hamas is further isolated but it has its prize.

The furious Israeli retaliation was the price the people of Gaza have just paid. All Israeli combat troops have standing orders to prevent a capture of one of their comrades at any price - bombarding any possible escape route to stop the captors from spiriting the soldier away. In a Haaretz interview in 2009, Brigadier-General Moti Baruch spelled out with uncommon frankness explaining that the order – The Hannibal Procedure – is "unequivocal" and applies "at every level, beginning with the individual soldier... The message is that no soldier is to be captured, and that is an unambiguous message." He said that "in the end, an incident like this must be seen above all as one where there is an enemy, even before the kidnapped soldier. There is an enemy who must be hit... you take a risk, you risk your life and that of your comrades, so, of course, in an abduction you might endanger the abducted soldier, but not only him. You are not just in the midst of an abduction, but also in the midst of making contact with the enemy."

The Hannibal Directive reflects not only the tactical and strategic implications for an army in the capture of one of its soldiers but the national trauma that is caused as well. The collective outpouring of grief for the fate of one family confronting the unknown which translates into deep political pressure on the government to do anything to ensure his return – including as in the Galid Shalit case, signing an agreement to release 1,027 prisoners in return.

But this is very different to the Shalit case, where the sergeant was captured during a period of relative calm, from his tank that was positioned on the Israeli side of the border. Escalation then was much slower and more moderate. 2nd Lieutenant Goldin has been taken while large IDF forces are already engaged in combat operations on a relatively wide front in Gaza - the escalation has already been fast and furious and gone well beyond just ending the ceasefire which barely begun.

The next stage, whether the security cabinet gives the army orders to expand the operation beyond its current objective of destroying the Hamas tunnels and trying to recover the captured officer, to a wider offensive against the Hamas leadership is still unclear. It will to some extent on what information is received, if any, over the next few hours on Goldin's status. His physical situation, whether he at all survived the explosion of the suicide bomber by the tunnel's entrance may mean that Hamas do not have a live prisoner to barter with - a fact that if true, they will certainly hide.

Efforts are already afoot to try and revive the 72-hour ceasefire which was blown to smithereens this morning but it will be next to impossible now for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who withstood the pressure in the cabinet to expand the operation, to agree to any ceasefire in the coming days. As far as Hamas are concerned, a ceasefire is the best outcome now. They have their prize, achieved at a terrible cost to the people of Gaza, now they want to sit back and negotiate.

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