Why the capture of an Israeli soldier would be such a big deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) walks alongside freed IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, Oct. 18, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, walks alongside freed soldier Gilad Shalit, Oct. 18, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)

Update: On Friday, Aug. 1, senior Israeli military spokesman said Gaza militants captured another Israeli officer in the southern Gaza Strip just as the cease-fire was falling apart. A top Hamas official in Cairo confirmed the abduction but said it was carried out before the truce began. The following piece was written on July 22, after Hamas announced that it had captured an Israeli soldier.

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On Sunday evening, Islamist militant group Hamas announced that it had captured an Israeli soldier in the midst of the bloodiest day of hostilities in the Gaza Strip since Israel launched "Operation Protective Edge" two weeks ago. An Israeli military spokesman said the army was investigating and did not confirm the abduction, but Ron Prosor, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters in New York the "rumors are untrue." But on Tuesday, Israeli officials confirmed that one Israeli soldier was indeed missing, though it was unclear whether the soldier was dead or alive.

There were initial suggestions that Hamas's claim may be a fabrication, a propaganda move by Hamas to at least briefly lift the mood in a besieged Gaza where conditions are dire. After the news was announced, celebratory gunfire, fireworks and shouts of "God is great!" broke through the night in Gaza -- on a day when an entire area near Gaza City was pummeled by Israeli forces and 87 Gazans died. Even if there is no Israeli soldier now in captivity, it is worth understanding why the capture of just one Israeli combatant would mean so much in a conflict where dozens of lives are being extinguished everyday.

Cries of celebration and fireworks rang out across in Gaza Sunday evening after Hamas claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier, a claim that Israel disputes. (Reuters)

The last Israeli soldier to fall into Hamas's hands was Gilad Shalit, who was seized from a checkpoint in 2006. Five years later, Shalit was freed after Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Yes, that's one Israeli for 1,027 Palestinians (the New York Times magazine memorably illustrated the event with a cover below). One would imagine such a lopsided trade may cause disquiet among Israelis, but it was supported by a considerable majority at the time: the Israeli cabinet approved the move with a vote of 26-3; one poll showed 79% of the Israeli public backing the swap.

The New York Times Magazine cover, illustrating the Shalit prisoner swap.
The New York Times Magazine Nov. 13, 2011 cover, illustrating the Shalit prisoner swap.

The IDF is a conscripted force; every Jewish citizen of the Israeli state is obligated to fulfill a term of military service. The army is a seminal institution of the Israeli state and, in a sense, a direct reflection of the nation. Shalit's release was an emotional moment for a society which sees most of its children serve in the armed forces. It mattered more to bring Shalit home than keep a number of Palestinians accused of terrorist attacks behind bars. Shalit, at the time, was the first captured Israeli soldier to be released alive in 26 years. The Jerusalem Post summed up the public mood in an editorial on the day of Shalit's release:

This collective willingness to expose ourselves to the risk of a future terrorist attack, if necessary, to secure Shalit's release speaks volumes about Israelis' strong sense that we are all in this Zionist project together, in good times and in bad. It's not that we are insensitive to the feelings of past terrorist victims' families and loved ones. Nor are we unaware that... that by paying a ratio of 1 to 1,027 we are encouraging future kidnappings. It's just that none of these potential future dangers seems to be able to trump the fact that right now an IDF soldier's life is being saved.

The prisoner swap is yet another stark illustration of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians see thousands of their boys and men swept up in arrests by Israel, sometimes detained without formal charges. The Palestinians experience death and destruction -- just look at the tolls of Israel's recent offensives in Gaza -- on a wildly different scale from what Israelis must endure with the threat of Hamas rocket attacks.

And so, for militant groups like Hamas, one captured Israeli soldier is vital currency. Israel rebukes Hamas for not accepting the offer of ceasefires brokered by outside parties, but the ceasefires on offer did nothing to satisfy Hamas's longstanding demands regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners (including some who were re-arrested after being freed in the exchange for Shalit), the loosening of border controls in heavily blockaded Gaza and the payment of salaries to some 40,000 public employees in Gaza.

Israel, which is very good at neutralizing rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli territory, likely recognized Hamas's diminished leverage. The Islamist group, as discussed here, is short on cash, has fewer allies abroad and was growing unpopular among Gaza's beleaguered population, frustrated with Hamas's misgovernance of the Strip.

Hamas was not in a particularly strong position to win any of its demands -- that is, until it claimed to have captured another Israeli soldier. If that proves true, then it could be a game changer.

Still, the biggest loser in the wake of the Shalit release was neither Israel nor Hamas, but the Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas, who has long been at odds with the Islamists. In one fell swoop, Hamas won a real victory -- the release of over 1,000 Palestinians -- when years of Abbas's diplomatic wrangling and quixotic missions for U.N. recognition have achieved little to improve the lot of Palestinians.

Abbas is the main interlocutor in peace talks aimed at achieving a lasting two-state solution, something that currently looks like a faint and remote possibility. The present hostilities have once more illustrated his ineffectiveness. And so the bombs keep falling, the children keep dying and the news will remain focused on the grim trade of Israeli and Palestinian life.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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