General laments ‘stagnation’ in returning soldiers’ bodies from Gaza
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General laments ‘stagnation’ in returning soldiers’ bodies from Gaza

At conference marking 30 years since capture of IAF navigator Ron Arad, age-old debate over prisoner exchanges comes to the fore

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski, head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, speaks at an Israeli Democracy Institute conference marking 30 years since navigator Ron Arad went missing over Lebanon, on November 29, 2016. (Courtesy Israeli Democracy Institute)
Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski, head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, speaks at an Israeli Democracy Institute conference marking 30 years since navigator Ron Arad went missing over Lebanon, on November 29, 2016. (Courtesy Israeli Democracy Institute)

The Israeli army’s human resources chief declared there were no breakthroughs on the horizon in the effort to return the bodies of two soldiers being held in Gaza.

“We have run into stagnation with this issue,” the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski, said Tuesday at an event commemorating 30 years since the capture of air force navigator Ron Arad.

During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the bodies of two servicemen — Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin — were seized by the terrorist group, which still holds them, by all accounts.

In the more than two years they’ve been held in the Gaza Strip, the effort to return the bodies has remained a hot-button issue in Israeli society, with the soldiers’ families making repeated calls for the government to take a harsher stance against the terrorist group in Gaza.

“I hope it happens quickly, in our days,” Topolanski said, using an oft-heard biblical phrase. “But right now I don’t see a breakthrough happening.”

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

Goldin and Shaul are among the approximately 100 Israeli soldiers who are designated by the army as having unknown burial places, including Ron Arad, whose plane fell over Lebanon in 1986 after one of its bombs exploded prematurely.

After nearly 20 years of being considered missing, Arad was formally declared “killed in action” in 2005 by the IDF’s chief rabbi.

Israel has often gone to great lengths to retrieve bodies of soldiers with unknown burial places, setting up a designated unit within the Manpower Directorate to find them and, in some cases, embarking on regular search missions.

“We have to make every effort to return the people we send on missions,” Topolanski told the conference.

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)
Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

For both live soldiers, like Gilad Shalit who was captured by Hamas in 2006, and the bodies, Israel has often agreed to wildly lopsided exchanges with terrorist groups.

To secure the release of Shalit, for instance, Israel set free 1,027 terrorists from its prisons.

That policy is heavily debated on both the Israeli street and in the upper echelons of the country’s security services. One side stresses the need for Israel to do everything within its power to bring back any soldier who falls into enemy hands, while the other argues that such a sentimental approach to individuals, and especially bodies, is ultimately a weakness, which can be and has been exploited by Israel’s enemies.

At the Ron Arad conference, which was hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute, Ami Ayalon, a former minister and head of the Shin Bet security service, squared off against Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence from 2006 to 2010.

Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence, Jan 2012. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)
Amos Yadlin, former director of military intelligence and current head of the Institute of National Security Studies (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Both noted the steep price Israel has had to pay for maintaining that policy, but while Yadlin argued it was simply too high a cost for Israel to stomach, Ayalon saw it ultimately as a positive.

“Someone who murders needs to know that he’ll sit in prison for the rest of his life,” Yadlin said. Releasing hundreds or thousands of prisoners with “blood on their hands” is “not moral,” he said.

Ayalon recognized the issue and acknowledged that at times Israel endangers itself by going too far in these deals, but said it was necessary for “resilience.”

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Former Navy commander and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After a 1998 deal in which Israel negotiated over the release of one slain soldier’s body and fragments of the corpses of other servicemen, terrorists realized they could extort Israel for just pieces of bodies, Ayalon said.

Some six months after the trade, two terrorists on bicycles attempted to carry out an attack in the West Bank. They came “with bags to take pieces of the bodies because they know that we’ll trade for fragments,” Ayalon said.

But while some aspects of the policy need to be changed, he argued, it is fundamentally necessary for Israeli society.

“A source of our strength is that one of our live soldiers is worth more than one thousand, two thousand, three thousand terrorists in prison,” Ayalon said at the conference.

Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at IDI, agreed with Ayalon that Israel must do all it can to bring back soldiers, but warned that the Israeli public needs to mitigate its outrage and emotional involvement in these cases.

“The fact that when someone gets kidnapped, the entire country gets kidnapped — that needs to end,” Stern said.

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