Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian heritage, who made his own way across the border into Gaza and into the hands of Hamas last September, is not Gilad Shalit, and Israeli society circa 2015 is not Israeli society circa June 2006, when Shalit was taken, like a rag doll, across the border.
The differences are many. The Shamgar Commission, which completed its report in 2012, laid out guidelines for Israel’s prisoner exchanges, insulating the decision makers from some of the societal pressure. Terror operatives freed in the Shalit deal, including Salah Arouri in Turkey, who is in charge of the West Bank for Hamas, are back at work. The circumstances in which Mengistu reached Hamas’ hands – by crossing the Gaza border fence of his own free will – are quite different. And finally the family itself seems unlikely to mount a massive enduring public campaign, which both exerts pressure on the government and raises the terrorists’ prices.
To be sure, the 1,000:1 ratio of Arab prisoners returned in exchange for each Israeli hostage did not start with the October 2011 return of Shalit, an armored corps corporal who was seized from within a heavily armed and fortified tank, with no resistance. On February 5, 1957, one year after the Suez War, Israel transferred 5,500 Egyptian prisoners of war to Egypt in return for one pilot and three soldiers.
After that, depending on circumstances, the price fluctuated. The constant, though, since 1985, is that terror groups have consistently demanded an exorbitant price – and time and again those demands have been answered nearly in full.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has delivered a master class in torment and manipulation of Israeli society. Karnit Goldwasser, widow of abducted soldier Udi Goldwasser, called the July 2006 morning in which Israel — still uncertain if Goldwasser and comrade Eldad Regev were alive — traded four terrorists, 199 bodies, and brutal killer Samir Kuntar for the two soldiers’ bodies, “a horror show.”
Kuntar today is leading terror groups for Hezbollah in the northern Golan Heights.
Israel paid through the nose in 2004 for three dead soldiers and one drug dealer, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who had knowingly traveled to Dubai on a false passport provided by a fellow drug dealer from Lebanon.
And yet the shift in society and the circumstances of Mengistu’s abduction, and that of the unnamed Bedouin also being held in Gaza, may make this case different.
One reason is the Shamgar Commission. Set up in 2010 by then-defense minister Ehud Barak and headed by retired Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, the commission offers a blueprint to leaders of how to advance in prisoner swaps.
“We did not only deal with the question of how to end negotiations but also with the question of whether to negotiate, what are the permissible boundaries, and who the decision makers are,” Shamgar said in January 2012.
The report is highly classified, but the Israeli news website Ynet indicated upon its release that it placed the handling of POW and hostage cases into the hands of the defense minister. Keeping it away from the ultimate decision maker would seem wise, as it limits the emotional strain on the prime minister.
Professor Asa Kasher, one of the three members of the commission, said in a phone interview Thursday that the manner in which the Shalit public campaign was handled was “irresponsible and damaging,” and that he believes Israel has changed since then.
To what extent? “Time will tell.”
Another difference relates to the family of the abductees. An Israeli security source made clear Thursday that the family of Avraham Mengistu has met at length with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and President Reuven Rivlin. The family has been kept up to date. And a former army officer who worked with the families of POWs has been appointed by the Defense Ministry to help the family navigate the emotional and strategic pitfalls of the negotiation process.
And yet the affair has been kept under wraps for 10 months. How can this be explained? Some have been quick to accuse the Israeli establishment of racism in this matter. Had Mengistu come from a white family, not an Ethiopian one, the response would have come a lot faster, they charge. But there’s much more to the story than that.
Firstly, Mengistu crossed the border on his own volition; he was not stationed there as a soldier nor was he snatched from Israeli territory.
Secondly, the silence could have more to do with temperament than ethnicity. In this regard, Miriam Grof, the mother of a captured soldier, may have signaled a shift. Then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin was said to have remarked that he signed off on the Jibril Agreement in 1985 because he could no longer face Miriam Grof, whose son Yoske, a Nahal Brigade soldier, was taken during the 1982 Lebanon War.
“I didn’t want and I still don’t want to be a hero,” Miriam Grof told POW support group Erim Balaila in 2007. “All I wanted was one thing: to return my son safely home.”
Indeed, Grof acted tirelessly and often contrary to the wishes of the government. Many of the parents of POWs and abductees, in the following years, followed her example.
That changed last June with the restraint shown by the parents of the three kidnapped and slain Israeli teens – and continued with the decision by the IDF chief rabbi to declare as fallen the two soldiers missing in action during last year’s Gaza war, and their families’ willingness to both accept it and keep their silence in the year that followed.
Hamas, a security source said, will now either try to add Mengistu to the deal and thereby raise the price of returning those two bodies, or, perhaps, reveal that he is no longer being held by the organization.
Either way, Israel, in its actions over the past year, is hoping to show by example that the potency of abduction, as a weapon uniquely suited to strike at the Israel heart, has waned.