Israel cannot countenance another Shalit deal

Op-ed: The lopsided exchange of 2011 led directly to the loss of more Israeli lives. The latest case of two Israelis grabbed by Hamas must not be allowed to follow a similar course

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Hamas is making the most of the two Israelis who, for reasons still not entirely clear, separately crossed the border into the Gaza Strip and fell into its ruthless hands.

Under the direction of Khaled Mashaal, the terror group’s cynical leader in exile, Hamas is indicating that no information will be released on the two Israelis unless Israel first frees dozens of Hamas activists released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner deal who were rearrested last June as Israel hunted for the three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped — and as it turned out killed — by a Hamas terror cell in the West Bank. At the same time, some other Hamas officials are claiming to have no knowledge of the current whereabouts of Avraham Mengistu, one of the two Israelis in Gaza. Still other Hamas sources say Mengistu was grabbed and interrogated but was then set free, and may have chosen to head to Sinai.

Yet for a rally it held in Gaza City on Wednesday, Hamas’s propagandists had produced a giant model fist, holding up three large mock ID cards — one for Oron Shaul, an Israeli soldier who was killed in last summer’s war and whose remains are held by Hamas, and two others with giant question marks printed on them. The implied message: Hamas is holding two Israelis who it falsely wants to depict as captured soldiers.

A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army ID cards at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
A model fist holds 3 mock Israeli army ID cards at a Hamas rally in Gaza, July 8, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

In short, Hamas is engaged in its familiar foul strategy of seeking to utilize Israel’s concern for the safety of its citizens in order to advance its ideology — the central goal of which was and remains to weaken and ultimately destroy Israel. In that cause, it wages intermittent war with Israel, subverts all relevant materials imported into Gaza to build tunnels, rockets and other weapons of war; emplaces its war machine in Gaza’s teeming residential neighborhoods, including at schools and mosques, and generally sacrifices any hope of decent life for the citizens of Gaza.

It also seeks relentlessly to kidnap Israeli soldiers — a key but unsuccessful focus of its war effort last summer — to use as leverage to obtain the release of its own captured terrorists and gunmen. And when Israelis do have the deep misfortune to fall into its hands under any circumstances — Gilad Shalit was grabbed from an IDF post inside Israel and dragged off to Gaza, where he was held incommunicado for five years — it does its malicious best to toy with the Israeli national psyche in exploiting those Israeli assets.

Avraham Mengistu, 28, held by Palestinians since September after hopping over border fence into Gaza. (Facebook)
Avraham Mengistu, 28, held by Hamas since September after crossing the border fence into Gaza. (Facebook)

None of this should come as any surprise to Israelis. Hamas is a terrorist organization which violently seized power in Gaza in open pursuit of an extremist agenda. With Mengistu and the as-yet unnamed second Israeli, it is doing precisely what bitter experience has long since prepared us that it will do.

That bitter experience, however, ought also long since to have prepared Israel for how it needs to respond.

After five years of Hamas mind games, and out of an utterly admirable commitment to the well-being of the young men and women it conscripts to safeguard this country, Israel in 2011 agreed to the radically disproportionate “exchange” of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners in order to secure the freedom of IDF soldier Shalit.

This was an immensely controversial deal, and rightly so. Israel balanced the imperative to do everything for its soldiers, and an awareness of the impact on national morale if it failed to extricate Shalit from Hamas hands, against the beneficial consequences for Hamas of the exchange: The boost to Hamas’s standing in Palestinian public opinion and consequent blow to relative Palestinian moderates, seen as impotent by comparison; the boost to terrorism fostered by this proof that ruthless extremists who harm Israelis do not necessarily stay in jail for long; the inevitable greater subsequent effort by Hamas and other extremists groups to grab more Israelis; and the direct loss of Israeli lives in acts of terrorism orchestrated and carried out by the Hamas men released and their disciples.

It should have been clear at the time, and it is undoubtedly clearer now, that the Shalit deal was a mistake. For all the profound empathy with the captured soldier and his family — for all that every other Israeli family saw him as their potential son, their potential kidnap victim, on whose behalf they would shout from every rooftop to demand that any price be paid for his release — the cost was unconscionable. In the starkest terms, the brutal, grisly fact is that many more Israelis have died and will die because of the price that Israel so humanely paid to ensure that Gilad Shalit came home.

Palestinian members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, march during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation, at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ SAID KHATIB)
Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Dine al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, march during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation, at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ SAID KHATIB)

The precise circumstances in which these two new Israeli victims of Hamas fell into its hands are still shrouded in no little confusion. It appears that both crossed the border on their own volition; his family indicated Thursday that Mengistu has psychological issues. As of this writing, there is no suggestion that either was a serving IDF soldier or a former IDF soldier. Mengistu was apparently rejected for IDF service. But none of that is relevant to the considerations that must now guide Israel’s policymakers.

It is being suggested that had Mengistu been a native Israeli, and/or from a more prominent or well-established family, and that if the second man were not a Bedouin, Israel might already have handled this matter differently, and will be less inclined to pay a higher price for their release as the grim affair unfolds. But these assertions have no place, either, in the considerations that must shape Israel’s response.

Instead, as Israel should have known before the Shalit case, and must surely have internalized since, cold calculation rather than instinctive, decent, humane emotion, is what is required when facing up to Islamist terrorism. Hamas can be relied upon to act in the most cynical, ruthless fashion when dealing with Israel. Unfortunately, the long-term interests of this country require logic and the clearest thinking in return. That means no repeat of anything remotely comparable to the Shalit deal.

Again, emphatically not because the victims this time apparently crossed into Gaza by choice, or because one is of Ethiopian origin, and the other is not Jewish. But because of a simple, grim truth: Israel cannot, dare not afford to capitulate to terrorism. In trying admirably to save one or two lives, accumulated experience now shows incontrovertibly that more lives will be lost.

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