IDF Missing in Action: An Overview
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The IDF’s doctrine on all of its soldiers is that no soldier, either dead or alive, will be left behind in battle. The official policy of the Israeli government regarding missing soldiers is that, “The Government will do everything in its power to secure the release of POW’s and MIA’s and anyone who acted on behalf of state security, and to bring them home.” Even though the government refuses officially to negotiate with terrorists, it has on several occassions entered into indirect talks to bring back its kidnapped soldiers. Israel has in the past engaged in prisoner exchanges with both Arab nations and terrorist groups, sometimes releasing thousands of prisoners in exchange for a few soldiers.
On June 11, 1982, three soldiers — Zecharia Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz — could not be found after a battle with Syrian and Palestinian militias at Sultan Yakub in Lebanon. Despite the IDF’s attempts to classify the three as soldiers who had fallen in the field of battle, their families have fought a campaign to keep them classified as missing in action and presumed alive. According to several eyewitness accounts, the three were seen alive and were paraded through the streets of Damascus.
Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force captain and navigator, was captured on October 16, 1986 after his jet went down over Lebanon. Both Arad and the pilot of the plane parachuted to the ground, but the pilot was saved while Arad was captured by Shi’ite militia Amal. He was brought to Beirut and was held personally by head Amal operative Mustafa Dirani, who sold Arad to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards for a large sum of money. To date, Arad is still considered alive and missing in action, but as part of a prisoner exchange with Hizballah on July 16, 2008, Israel received information on the missing Israeli airman. The report contained no new information and said Hezbollah did not know what happened to Arad, but they believe he is dead.
On August 17, 1997, Guy Hever went missing without a trace in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border. Hever is presumed dead because no group has ever taken responsibility for his abduction. No trace of Hever has yet been discovered, nor has any explanation of his disappearance.
Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas terrorists after his army post was ambushed on June 25, 2006. The Hamas fighters crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip through a tunnel under the Kerem Shalom border crossing, killed two other soldiers, and kidnapped Shalit. The ambush, according to a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, had been planned for over two months. On June 26, his captors issued a statement saying Shalit would be released if Israel in return for the release of all female Palestinian prisoners under the age of 18, then demanded two days later that Israel release 1,000 more, giving the impression that housewives and toddlers were being unfairly imprisoned. Khalid Mashal, Hamas’ leader-in-exile in Damascus, said Shalit was alive and will be released pending an Israeli-Hamas prisoner exchange. Two years after his kidnapping, Shalit remains at the mercy of his captors.
On the morning July 12, 2006, Hezbollah began firing Katyusha rockets and mortars into Israel. A small force of operatives then attacked two IDF vehicles patrolling the Lebanese border, killing several soldiers and kidnapping Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers who had been patrolling the north on reserve duty. They were then apparently moved to a Shi’ite mosque, where the abductors changed their clothes. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that Israel must negotiate with the terrorist group in order for the soldiers to be freed, and demanded that Israel release convicted murderer Samir Kuntar and two other Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
On July 16, 2008, after a long and painful ordeal, Israel agreed to trade Samir Kuntar, along with five other Lebanese militants, in return for the bodies of its fallen soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both murdered after being kidnapped by Hezbollah, it was confirmed. Kuntar, the murderer, was given a hero’s welcome in Beirut and his release was praised by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
The decision to make the trade was a painful and difficult one for Israel. The idea of releasing prisoners like Kuntar is odious to Israelis. Kuntar committed one of the most heinous crimes in Israeli history. Moreover, prisoner exchanges are dangerous because they increase the risk that the terrorists will see kidnapping as a weapon to use repeatedly to force Israel to make concessions. It also lessens the terrorists’ incentive to keep hostages alive.
The latest prisoner exchange has emboldened Hamas to increase its demands for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. “We have to take advantage of this to release our prisoners,” said Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar.
On October 11, 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Israeli government had officially okayed a deal to secure the release of capture soldier Gilad Shalit. The deal, whose specifics have yet to be outlined to the public, includes the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are considered "blood on their hands" terrorists. The majority of those released will be sent to either Gaza or the West Bank, while those deemed as high-risk by Israel will be exiled from the region.