It was planned as the most daring operation undertaken by the IDF in recent years — exceptional in courage and complexity. The mission: take captive the head of Hamas’s military wing, Ahmed al-Jabari, in the heart of the Gaza Strip, and bring him back to Israel as a bargaining chip for Gilad Shalit’s release.

Details of the Entebbe-style raid of the 21st century are being published here for the first time.

One can only imagine the stories generations of fighters from special units would have grown up on had it succeeded. But the soldiers — men from an elite unit who were sent into position and were ready to carry out the capture of Jabari in Gaza — ultimately returned empty-handed.

From the moment the operation received approval in late 2008, the defense establishment kicked intelligence gathering on Jabari into high gear. They quickly identified a weak spot, a routine: the man would often come back from a visit with one of his two wives, then travel across the Gaza Strip in a way that would allow an IDF team to ambush him. He also made a habit of not driving in a secure convoy, and preferred moving about in a private car with just one or two bodyguards.

More information collected by military intelligence and by the Shin Bet paved the way for the operation. The fighters began to train.

Gilad Shalit upon his release, October 18, 2011 (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)

Gilad Shalit upon his release, October 18, 2011 (photo credit: GPO/Flash90)

On the designated day, “D,” the commander of the unit, oversaw the operation at a location not far from Gaza, while another commander took up a position in the field.

Jabari was expected to arrive at the location and encounter a well-planned ambush, carried out under cover of darkness. According to sources involved in planning the operation, “the likelihood that he would have been taken alive was high. We have the necessary equipment to have ensured his survival of the ambush, and if we would have wanted, we could have taken out the bodyguards.”

After a long wait, the troops received the green light and started making their way into Gaza for the operation — a daring raid, directed at the heart of the Islamist group that was holding Shalit hostage, a reassertion of IDF potency designed to attain the leverage to secure the soldier’s release. But at the last minute they received an order to turn back. Their disappointment was palpable. But the mission had only been delayed, not aborted.

Several days later, the forces again received the go-ahead and again set out for the ambush in early evening. Meanwhile, Israeli top brass convened at the Shin Bet headquarters in Tel Aviv, to monitor the operation. Those present included Yoav Galant, then-head of the IDF’s Southern Command and the commander running the operation; G., head of the Shin Bet’s southern command; representatives of the executive branch of the Shin Bet; Nimrod Sheffer, director of the IAF headquarters; and A., the deputy commander of the unit carrying out the operation.

Behind a glass window sat then-defense minister Ehud Barak, IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin. Hours passed until the forces on the ground took up their positions. It was approximately 9 pm.

Palestinian mourners bid farewell to Ahmad Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas, during his funeral in Gaza City on November 15, 2012. (Photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Palestinian mourners bid farewell to Ahmad Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas, during his funeral in Gaza City on November 15, 2012. (Photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

In retrospect, Jabari’s fate was sealed on that night in 2008, though he could not have known it. Had he been taken hostage, he would not have been assassinated in November 2012 at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense and it’s possible he would have been released in an exchange deal for Gilad Shalit. (The captured IDF soldier was finally released in a prisoner exchange in October 2011, after five years in Hamas captivity. The deal was partly negotiated by Jabari, who was part of the Hamas group that handed Shalit over to the Egyptians when the deal was implemented.)

At first, that night, things proceeded as planned. Jabari did not exhibit unusual behavior. Galant gave the order for the operation to begin. In just a few moments, Jabari was supposed to have arrived on the road where the forces were waiting. The tension in Tel Aviv was profound. The defense minister and the chief of staff moved into the main command room.

The car containing Jabari was expected to make a turn in the direction of the fighters in position, just as it had a few days earlier. This was supposed to trigger the operation. But the vehicle, departing from Jabari’s routine, proceeded in a different direction.

The brass in Tel Aviv watched with immense disappointment as the car drove further and further away from the ambush. D. and his men were ordered to pull back and make their way home — without Terrorist No.1.

The full story of the operation will be published on Friday.