It would have been the most daring operation in the IDF’s recent history — one that involved bravery, complexity and an exceptional achievement. Ahmed al-Jabari, head of the Hamas military wing, was to be captured in Gaza and held prisoner, to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
Israeli intelligence and the IDF have been criticized repeatedly for their inability to collect information about Shalit’s whereabouts and their failure to seize valuable bargaining chips for Shalit’s release in the years that the kidnapped Israeli soldier was held by Hamas in Gaza from 2006-2011. This article may alter public opinion to some degree.
Not only did the Shin Bet security service and the IDF go to extreme lengths to locate the Israeli soldier, they were even somewhat successful. And during the second half of 2008, an operation was launched that should have secured the key bargaining chip — the man who held Shalit.
Saving Corporal Shalit
The idea of assassinating or capturing Jabari was first considered even before Shalit was grabbed in June 2006. Jabari was responsible for building Hamas’s military capabilities; he was the man who helped the Hamas military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, obtain rockets; and he encouraged his people to shoot increasing numbers of missiles at Israel.
Yoav Galant, appointed commander of the Southern Command in late 2005, considered Jabari to be a legitimate target and was the first to propose a plan to assassinate the Hamas chief of staff.
Galant, later a disappointed would-be chief of staff, had been involved in dozens of daring operations in enemy countries and implored his superiors — beginning with Dan Halutz, chief of staff at the time of his appointment, and later his successor Gabi Ashkenazi, to assassinate Jabari as soon as possible. He held the Hamas military leader responsible for killing and injuring Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers, making him a legitimate target.
Three years after taking command of the Hamas military wing, Jabari had become the most powerful man in the Gaza Strip
Jabari had therefore been targeted six months before Hamas collaborated with other organizations to launch the cross-border tunnel attack in Kerem Shalom that resulted in Shalit being taken captive. Even after Shalit was captured and during the subsequent period of relative quiet between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Jabari continued to run the Hamas military wing from behind the scenes (with the help of Marwan Issa, who later succeeded him) and to arm the organization with the most advanced, sophisticated weapons, thus serving as an inspiration for other anti-Israel organizations.
In the years before Shalit was captured, Jabari was a threat not only to Israel but also to the leaders of the Hamas political wing. It took Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar and other leaders just a little too long to realize that Jabari had his own agenda and that he failed to consult with them before making important decisions, such as calling a ceasefire, capturing an Israeli soldier, or even overthrowing the local government. By the time he was 46, three years after taking command of the Hamas military wing, Jabari, also known as “Abu Mohammad,” had become the most powerful man in the Gaza Strip.
As Hamas military leader, Jabari oversaw preparations for the operation near Kerem Shalom. Parts of the terrorists’ original plan failed, but they nonetheless found themselves standing before Shalit’s tank. Two of the soldiers in the tank, Lt. Hanan Barak and Staff Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, were killed in the attack and a third soldier was injured and later evacuated, while Shalit emerged from the tank with his hands raised and surrendered to Hamas.
In an article in Haaretz, Amos Harel stated that two days before the early-morning attack on Sunday, June 25, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit was scheduled to launch an operation to arrest Hamas activist Mustafa Muammar east of Rafah. The Shin Bet believed Muammar to have important information about an impending Hamas attack. The operation was launched 24 hours behind schedule and the Hamas activist and his brother were arrested in a relatively straightforward operation run by the special unit. Harel wrote that one of the claims made by the General Staff was that the 24-hour delay that was demanded by the heads of the IDF Operations and Intelligence Directorates (Amos Yadlin and Gadi Eizenkot, contrary to the recommendations made by the Southern Command, the Gaza Division and Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky) resulted in the deaths of the soldiers in the tank and Shalit’s abduction.
The Reconnaissance Unit arrested the Hamas activist early that Saturday morning and handed him over to the Shin Bet for interrogation. On Sunday, several hours after Shalit was captured, Muammar gave his interrogators information that could have prevented the attack. Unfortunately, this incident, which continues to hover over several current and former IDF officers, would not be the last in the chain of events involving Shalit’s capture that would prompt infighting among the generals.
Galant’s proposals rejected
On Sunday morning, shortly after the abduction, Galant and head of IDF Military Intelligence Yadlin arrived at the Kerem Shalom border crossing for what was supposed to be a scheduled visit to the command unrelated to the attack that morning.
Brig. General Aviv Kochavi, Gaza Division Commander at the time (and current head of Military Intelligence) had already arrived. Galant told those present that, in his opinion, Haniyeh and al-Zahar should be targeted without delay and without prior warning. Yadlin disagreed, but Galant continued to pursue this course of action in a telephone conversation with Halutz. Halutz rejected the proposal, though the head of the Southern Command believed that it was crucial for Israel to send an immediate message to Hamas regarding the price that it would pay for any attempt to capture an Israeli soldier. Galant most likely did not realize at the time that the Hamas cross-border attack had not been approved by, or coordinated with, Haniyeh and al-Zahar.
It was Ashkenazi who ultimately authorized the secret operation to abduct Jabari
Chief of staff Halutz did not authorize the proposed attacks and the IDF launched Operation Summer Rains in Gaza, which basically ended with the Second Lebanon War. Nevertheless, the ideas proposed by the Southern Command were never entirely taken off the agenda. Galant repeatedly proposed targeting Hamas political leaders, as well as Izz ad-Din al-Qassam leaders such as Muhammad Sinwar, Raed al-Atar, Marwan Issa and of course, Jabari. Galant’s proposal was supported by several senior Shin Bet officials such as Yitzhak Ilan, who believed that the Hamas leaders should be targeted repeatedly, in order to exact a price for the Shalit attack and to deter Hamas.
These proposals were ultimately rejected, possibly due to Israeli political leaders’ attempts to stabilize the security situation in the Gaza Strip. And indeed, in late 2007 and early 2008, a certain status quo was established in the region that allowed Israel to operate against non-Hamas activists in Gaza while Hamas would refrain from violent attacks against Israeli targets.
Ashkenazi takes over
Gabi Ashkenazi was appointed IDF chief in early 2007. One of his main objectives was to restore the IDF’s strength after the Second Lebanon War.
Several senior IDF officers that I spoke to reported that Ashkenazi was not an advocate of special operations, to say the least. Various proposals to assassinate or attack Hamas leaders were received coolly. One officer told me that “Ashkenazi wouldn’t reject the plans and operations that were proposed. He would let them fade out. He would postpone discussions for several days or raise his reservations about the plans until the window of opportunity for those operations closed and we would return to our regular routine. He wanted peace and quiet.”
But other senior General Staff officials present a different picture. Ashkenazi often authorized operations deep inside the Gaza Strip, often placing soldiers’ lives at risk, in order to obtain information about Shalit’s whereabouts. And it was Ashkenazi who ultimately authorized the secret operation to abduct Jabari, revealed here for the first time.
Finding the house
During the second half of 2007, the Shin Bet gradually accepted the fact that, despite its extensive efforts, it was unable to collect productive information about Shalit. The operatives’ colleagues in the IDF came to their defense and explained that the Shin Bet (which refused to collaborate with this article) did everything possible to obtain information. “They invested enormous resources. A decision was made to go to all lengths to collect intelligence about Shalit. Their team worked around the clock,” I was told. The problem is that in incidents such as this, the final outcome is the only thing that counts.
The Hamas coup in Gaza in June 2007, ousting Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, halted negotiations for Shalit’s release. Egyptian Intelligence, the exclusive mediator, decided to boycott Hamas after activists raided the home of the Egyptian intelligence delegate to the Gaza Strip during the coup.
The Shin Bet identified what it thought was the house where Shalit was being held
At the same time, the Shin Bet finally managed to find two intelligence leads. The first was related to Jabari. Israel succeeded in tracking “Abu Muhammad” in Gaza, thanks to his greatest weakness: women. While the close bonds between Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas bomb-building “Engineer” and his father led to Ayyash’s assassination, Jabari’s weakness was his two wives. He traveled relatively confidently within the Gaza Strip and visited his wives’ homes often.
He did not consider this a significant risk to his personal safety because of the relatively peaceful relations between Israel and Hamas during the beginning of 2008 and the Tahadiya, the ceasefire agreement, that was reached in June 2008. He avoided traveling with an armed escort so as not to attract the attention of potential collaborators and preferred moving in private vehicles with no more than one or two security guards.
The second important Shin Bet achievement was an assessment of Shalit’s whereabouts. Over the years of Shalit’s captivity, several sites were identified as possible holding locations. But the Shin Bet were especially drawn to one particular house. The consensus among senior Shin Bet members was that it was highly probable that Shalit was being held there.
This raises the question of why Israel did not launch a military operation to retrieve Shalit from that house, if it was considered so likely that he was being held there. The answer is that, first of all, the information was no more than an assessment and was not supported by definite positive intelligence. Second, even if Israel had obtained that information, would it have been feasible to launch a rescue operation in one of the densest areas in the Gaza Strip?
The Gaza Strip has earned a justified negative reputation among Israeli security forces. It has been a stronghold of anti-IDF resistance since the first Intifada and is home to thousands of armed militants affiliated with a variety of terror organizations. The dense construction makes the refugee camps completely impassible for vehicles. Four-story buildings are often built only several meters apart.
Since everyone knows everyone, even the most covert operations can be exposed within seconds. (Hamas claims that in September 2007, undercover IDF soldiers abducted a senior activist in the organization’s military division who was involved in Shalit’s abduction, though he was taken near Rafah in a less dense area.) A military operation inside the refugee camps would likely have ended not only in Shalit’s death, but would have also endangered the lives of the Israeli soldiers. The decision makers could not forget Nachshon Wachsman’s abduction in 1994. Then, despite the specific intelligence that the Shin Bet obtained about the soldier’s whereabouts, the special IDF unit’s rescue mission resulted in the death of Wachsman and Captain Nir Poraz. It should be noted that later, during Operation Cast Lead, IDF forces avoided bombing areas in which they suspected that Shalit was being held.
Little headway was made in negotiations with Hamas during the first months of 2008, mostly due to the absence of a mediator between the sides. In Israel though, the general assumption was that it was Jabari himself who obstructed any opportunity to make progress towards reaching an agreement. The lack of military options to release Shalit, the information about Jabari’s whereabouts, and the fact that he was the main obstacle towards reaching an agreement, led Galant to place his proposal to assassinate Jabari on the table once again. He also raised the option of abducting Jabari, which was the preferred option due to the Hamas commander’s great value to Israeli intelligence.
In 2008, Ashkenazi authorized the IDF to abduct Jabari.
The probability of Jabari being taken alive was high
Quite a few arguments were heard among senior Israeli security officials regarding the implications of this operation. It would obviously end the relative quiet between Israel and Gaza. In addition, the intelligence organizations were divided over how effective Abu Muhammad’s abduction would be towards Shalit’s quick release in exchange for Jabari. Many officials argued that Hamas would never agree to such terms, while others thought that it would be possible to reach an agreement of this kind.
Those who supported the operation claimed that even if it failed to release Shalit, it would increase Israel’s deterrence and help resume the negotiations that had reached a dead end. One of the decision makers says today that “it was not an easy decision to make, by any means. There was no guarantee that he would be taken alive, and even if he was, he might not provide any information. The man had been held in an Israeli prison before.”
Once Ashkenazi decided to approve the operation in 2008, the debate ceased almost entirely. The ambitious plan was given the go-ahead by defense minister Ehud Barak and prime minister Ehud Olmert. The various intelligence organizations increased efforts to collect information about Jabari and began to track his every movement and to identify patterns.
The vast amounts of information collected by IDF Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet paved the way towards the operation. Soldiers in the special unit selected to conduct the operation began to run simulations.
D., the unit commander, would run the operation from a specific point within the Gaza Strip. A second officer, also D., was the field commander. Jabari was expected to arrive at the point at which the soldiers awaited him at nightfall, and fall into the carefully planned ambush.
According to officials who helped plan the operation, “The probability of him being taken alive was high. We had all of the necessary military equipment to ensure that he would survive the ambush. We had the capability of killing his escorts if necessary.”
The forces awaited orders to proceed. Finally, they came. The soldiers began to advance, only to receive new commands to withdraw due to a problem that had arisen. They returned to Israeli territory.
Several days later, the soldiers were once again ordered to proceed. Again, they set out early in the evening under D.’s command and began to advance towards their destination within the Gaza Strip. Israel’s entire military command convened in the Shin Bet operations room in Tel Aviv.
Galant was the overall commander of the operation. Also present were Shin Bet southern region commander — G.; representatives of the Shin Bet operations division; Israeli Air Force chief of staff Nimrod Shefer; and deputy commander of the operations division — A. Behind the glass sat defense minister Barak, chief of staff Ashkenazi and Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, all waiting tensely for updates. The hours passed as the soldiers all arrived at their destination without being exposed. The time was approximately 9 p.m.
The wrong turn
It is highly unlikely that Jabari had any idea, but his fate was sealed that night. If he had been captured, he would not have been killed in November 2012 at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, but instead might have been freed as part of an agreement for Shalit’s release.
Jabari did not exhibit any unusual behavior that night and Galant ordered the soldiers to proceed. Jabari was expected to reach the road within several minutes and then quickly fall into the ambush. Tension peaked in Tel Aviv. The defense minister and the chief of staff couldn’t restrain themselves from entering the command post itself.
Jabari’s car approached the turn that it had taken several days earlier, where the soldiers awaited him, but the operation ended there. Jabari’s driver decided to take a different route that night. The commanders watched in despair as the car drove away from the ambush. D. and his soldiers were instructed to withdraw. They all returned safely, but empty-handed. Terrorist No. 1 was still at large.
After the failed attempt to abduct Jabari, other ideas were presented to obtain bargaining chips, including new plans to abduct him. A different special unit began to practice a new model to capture Abu Muhammad. The plans did not include taking Jabari’s deputies, as they were unlikely to contribute to the efforts to release Shalit.
Who dares, wins
One especially disturbing question arose from the interviews that were conducted for this article regarding the performance of the IDF and Israel’s security forces during the years of Shalit’s captivity. Even if we assume that the intelligence organizations did not have precise information about Shalit’s whereabouts, or that if they did have some information a rescue operation had been deemed impossible, how is it possible that Israel, the IDF and the Shin Bet were unable to obtain significant bargaining chips or make any attempts to apply harsh military pressure on Hamas through military operations, other than the attempt to abduct Jabari in 2008?
It is likely that the relative quiet in the Gaza Strip and the fear of losing soldiers caused the IDF to hesitate (again, these considerations may very well be justified) to obtain bargaining chips by force. If this is the case, it seems that the military and political decision makers forgot the slogan “Who dares, wins.”
It is true that many ideas were bandied about the military headquarters. Some sounded crazy and were never implemented. Israel did not abandon Shalit. He was ultimately released from captivity more than five years after his abduction. But if Israel had been more daring, his time in captivity may have been shorter or, alternatively, Hamas might have been forced to rethink its policies for capturing Israeli soldiers.
Meanwhile, in the Shalit household
In October, Israel will mark two years since Gilad Shalit’s release. Precisely 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for Shalit. This number is unprecedented in the history of prisoner exchange deals for a single prisoner.
The deal was harshly criticized both then and now for helping Hamas restore its public image among the Palestinian people. Jabari was among the Hamas group that escorted Shalit to Egypt for the handover.
Israel is now faced with a new dilemma. Should 104 veteran prisoners be released to Palestinian Authority President Abbas as a favorable gesture before and during the renewed negotiations? Abbas himself has taken every opportunity to criticize Israel on this point, asking how Israel could possibly have released over 1,000 prisoners to Hamas and hundreds of prisoners to Hezbollah because they abducted soldiers, while refusing to release prisoners as part of peace negotiations.
Today, Shalit is gradually rebuilding his life. Around the second anniversary of his release, he will begin his studies toward a BA in Economy and Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.
His father, Noam Shalit, told me that Gilad’s first few months in captivity were very difficult. “Let’s just say that it was no picnic. One of the strange stories that he told us was that they fed him Israeli-made Tzabar hummus. They occasionally brought him hot meals, but he ate very little of them. He didn’t see the light of day for five years and was held in a closed, windowless room.”
Noam Shalit added that the family was never informed when operations were successful or if they failed.
He says that Gilad now has a general idea of where he was held, but prefers to speak little of his years in captivity. Noam claims that when the security officials discussed attempts to obtain bargaining chips with their family, the assumption was that if they managed to capture two key figures, Hamas would change its demands to include “450 major prisoners plus the two key figures.”
According to Noam Shalit, a deal became possible only when Jabari agreed to waive his demands for the release of “major” terrorists such as Marwan and Abdullah Barghouti, Abbas al-Sayid and others.
And indeed, approximately two years after the night in 2008 when the special IDF unit attempted to abduct Abu Muhammad, the Israeli government sent an unconventional message to Jabari. A senior Shin Bet official met with leading Hamas activists Yahya Sinwar (brother of Muhammad Sinwar, one of the heads of the Hamas military wing) and Sheikh Hassan Yousef in an Israeli prison. They were instructed to tell Jabari that if he continued to insist on his list of prisoners, there would be no deal. The deal then proceeded without the major terrorists on the list.
Less than one year later, Ahmed Sayid Khalil al-Jabari was killed by a missile fired at his car by an Israeli aircraft, triggering Operation Pillar of Defense.
Gabi Ashkenazi and Yoav Galant refused to comment on this article. Ehud Barak could not be reached for comment.
The IDF spokesperson responded as follows: “During the years of Gilad Shalit’s captivity, the IDF invested extensive operational, intelligence and other efforts to bring him home to Israel. We naturally cannot offer details regarding these efforts.”
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