On Monday, the Maariv daily headline declared, in thick ink beneath the fold: IDF Spokesman: “We assume the kidnapped are alive.” The quote was reassuring. But it strayed a little from the truth.
In fact, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz had strung together an elaborate statement on Sunday when commenting on the fate of the three missing teens. “Our working assumption is that they are still alive because the information we have enables us to make that assumption.”
Which is also another way of saying: we can’t prove that they are dead.
This kind of thing has happened before. Karnit Goldwasser, whose husband Udi was killed and abducted on July 12, 2006 – an incident that sparked the Second Lebanon War – received the IDF’s medical report on August 14, one day after the ceasefire went into effect. Elazar Stern, a general who headed the manpower division at the time, showed up at her mother’s house with a projector and screened the images on their bare living room wall.
These were the facts: The jeep had been pounded by anti-tank missiles. Snipers had been placed on every single door of the Hummer. Udi himself had taken a direct hit from an RPG, probably at shoulder level. The rocket burns through the body, Karnit Goldwasser was told, at 2,500 degrees Celsius. In her memoir, “The Road to You,” she described Stern inhaling deeply and telling the family “Udi’s situation is not good at all.” The best case scenario, they were told, was that he could have survived for 30 minutes prior to receiving top notch medical care.
Six months later she met with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. He paced, he massaged his scalp, he fingered his mail. He avoided her eyes. “His truth, he knew, was my personal disaster,” she wrote. “It was hard for him to look me in the eye and say, ‘Karnit, I think Udi is dead.'”
She mentioned to Olmert that the medical report indicated that there was a 99 percent chance that her husband was dead. “He told me he had yet to hear about a funeral for someone who was only 99 percent dead,” she wrote.
Which is true, of course. And perhaps she deserved the peace of mind of laying her husband in a grave – even at the cost of releasing the terrorist Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah men, and 199 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists. That may be a legitimate service that the state provides to its citizens. But the public, then as now, was largely kept in the dark about the soldiers’ condition.
A far more egregious case of disregard for the public’s need to know, upheld by a court of law in Israel, was Elhanan Tannenboim, who went missing several days after three soldiers were killed and abducted from the Har Dov region in October 2000. Many assumed that the reserves colonel was a Mossad combatant, who had been looking for the three abducted soldiers. The courts barred the public from knowing the truth: that he had travelled to Dubai to seal a drug deal with a Lebanese dealer and Hezbollah operative.
In January 2004 Hezbollah released Tannenboim and the three dead soldiers in exchange for 435 prisoners, including Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Karim Obeid.
The current situation is different. Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel did not violate the law. The army, police, and Shin Bet should continue to do everything possible to find them. The search should be conducted with a feverish devotion.
But as the operation draws deeper into its second week and the Palestinian death toll rises and the streets come alive with protests, perhaps shifting Palestinian public sentiment more toward Hamas, the question is whether the Israeli citizenry should be given more of the facts. Should the forensic information and other evidence be openly relayed to the public or, at least, no longer stifled by court order? In other words, does Israel’s citizenry have the right to know whether its soldiers, in turning over every stone, are likely looking for captives or corpses?