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Israel Defense Forces: Prisoners-of-War and Captive Soldiers Exchanges

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.

- War of Independence
- The "Bat Galim" Prisoners
- Sinai Campaign
- Six-Day War
- The War of Attrition
- Yom Kippur War
- Operation "Litani"
- Peace for Galilee War
- Second Lebanon War
- Gilad Shalit
- 2014 Legislation

War of Independence

The first exchanges of prisoners between Israel and Egypt, Syria , Jordan , and Lebanon took place in the War of Independence (1948-1949 ). During the war, Egypt captured 156 Israelis, Jordan 673, Syria 48, and Lebanon 8. Israel for its part held: 1098 Egyptians, 28 Saudis, 25 Sudanese, 24 Yemenites, 17 Jordanians, 36 Lebanese, 57 Syrians, and 5021 Palestinians and others. Israel made separate agreements for exchange of prisoners with each and every one of the countries which held Israeli prisoners. On 27 February 1949 the five Israeli prisoners held in the "Faluja Pocket" were returned in exchange for the freeing of the trapped Egyptian brigade encircled by Israeli forces in the "Pocket". The remaining POW exchanges with Egypt took place between 7-9 March 1949. Two groups of Israeli women taken prisoner when Gush Ezion fell to the Jordanians, were returned in June and November, 1948. POW exchanges with Jordan began on 2 February 1949 and were completed on 3 March 1949. All prisoners of war were exchanged between Israel and Lebanon on 24 March 1949. On 4 April 1949, six Israeli POWs returned from Syria; between 2-8 May others were returned. On 21 July 1949 the last exchange was made with Syria.

The "Bat Galim" Prisoners

The first incident in which Israelis were captured by Arab countries not during a war was in 30 September 1954 with the seizure of the ship "Bat Galim" by the Egiptians in the southern entrance to the Suez Canal. Ten sailors were arrested, and after the intervention of the UN Security council they were released on 1 January 1955 .

On December 1954 a five-man IDF squad operating on the Golan Heights was captured by the Syrians. One of the soldiers ( Uri Ilan ) committed suicide in a Syrian prison and on 14 January 1955 his remains were returned to Israel. His four companions were returned to Israel on 30 March 1956 in exchange for 41 Syrian soldiers.

Sinai Campaign

During the Sinai campaign (October-November 1956) the IDF captured 5,500 Egyptian soldiers. They were returned (along with other Egyptian soldiers who had been captured in previous military operations) in exchange for 4 Israeli soldiers, ( a pilot who had been imprisoned during the Sinai Campaign and three others who had been captured before the war and had been held prisoner for over a year.) The POW exchange began on 21 January 1957 and was completed on 5 February of that year.

On 17 March 1961 a Golani force raided Syrian positions north of kibbutz "Ein Gev," on the Golan Heights. Two soldiers were captured and were later returned to Israel.

Israel and Syria carried out a POW exchange on 21 December 1963 in which 11 Israeli soldiers and civilians who had been taken prisoner by the Syrians since the end of the War of Independence in 1949 were returned in exchange for 18 Syrians. The Israelis held in Syrian jails suffered from intense physical abuse. 

Six-Day War

Many prisoner exchanges were carried out during 1967. During the Six-Day War (June 1967), 15 IDF soldiers were captured by Arab armed forces, ( 11 in Egypt, 1 in Syria, 2 in Iraq, and 1 in Lebanon). POW exchanges began at the conclusion of the war on 15 June 1967, and ended on 23 January 1968 with a POW exchange with Egypt. An Israel Navy officer and seaman who were taken prisoner of war in an operation which took place in July 1967 and six Naval Commandos who were taken prisoner at the beginning of the war while operating in the Alexandria port were returned in the context of a prisoner exchange. In this exchange, some members involved in the Lavon Affair in Egypt were returned (February 1968). Likewise, in these prisoner of war exchanges, two IAF pilots who were prisoners of war in Iraq, Capt. Itzhak Glantz-Golan and Capt. Gideon Dror were returned. They had been taken prisoners of war when their plane was downed in an attack on the Iraqi H3 Air base. Israel, in exchange returned 428 Jordanian prisoners.

In POW exchanges with Syria, Israel exchanged 572 Syrian POWs for one Israeli pilot, the bodies of two other Israeli pilots and the body of an Israeli civilian who had been kidnapped two years prior and who had died in a Syrian prison. However, the Syrians adamantly refused to return the body of Israeli Mossad agent Eli Cohen who had been hanged in Damascus. On 2 April 1968, 12 Jordanian prisoners were returned in exchange for the body of a missing Israeli soldier who had fallen in the Karameh battle. (Two other caskets that were returned contained only dirt. Those two soldiers are missing until today.) 

The War of Attrition

During the War of Attrition (1967-1970), 12 Israeli soldiers were captured by the Egyptians, and three by the Syrians. On 16 August 1970, a wounded IAF pilot was returned from Egypt, and on 29 March 1971, one soldier was returned form Egypt. On 9 June 1972, an IDF force captured five Syrian officers who had been reconnoitering near the Israeli border. They were exchanged for three Israeli pilots imprisoned in Syria.

On 3 June 1973, three Israeli pilots, Captain Gideon Magen, Captain Pinchas Nahmani, and Lieutenant Boaz Eitan were returned after three years of captivity in Syria. In exchange, Israel returned 46 Syrian prisoners.

 Yom Kippur War

During the Yom Kippur War (October 1973) 242 IDF soldiers were captured by the Egyptians, 68 by the Syrians, and 4 by the Lebanese. The IDF captured 8,372 Egyptians, 392 Syrians, 13 Iraqis, and six Moroccan soldiers.The prisoner exchanges with Egypt were held between 15 November 1973 and the 22 November 1973, during which POWs held by both sides since the War of Attrition were returned.

On 4 April 1975, Egypt returned to Israel the bodies of 39 Israeli soldiers killed in action during the Yom Kippur War. In exchange, Israel returned 92 terrorists and security prisoners who had been held in Israeli prisons.

Operation "Litani"

On 5 April 1978, a truck carrying six Israeli soldiers and a civilian had mistakenly crossed Israeli lines (near the Tyre enclave), and encountered terrorists near Rashidia. Four soldiers were killed in this incident and one was taken prisoner. On 14 March 1979 he was returned in exchange for 76 terrorists.

Peace for Galilee War

On 3 September 1982, eight soldiers that were in a look out post in the area of Bhamdoun were captured by a terrorist group. Two of the soldiers were handed to Ahmad Jibril's PFLP, and the rest were held by the Fatah Organization. On 23 November 1983, the six soldiers held by the Fatah were returned in exchange for 4700 terrorists that were held in the Ansar detention facility in Lebanon and another 65 terrorists that were held in Israel.

On 23 November 1983, six IDF soldiers: Eliyahu Abutbul, Dani Gilboa, Rafi Hazan, Reuven Cohen, Avraham Motevaliski, and Avraham Kornfeld, who had been held prisoners by the PLO since 4.9.82 were released in exchange for 100 security prisoners and 4500 detainees from the Ansar detention facility.

In an Exchange on 28 June 1984, Syria returned three soldiers (SSGTs, Gil Fogel, Ariel Lieberman, and Johnathan Shalom), three Israeli civilians from the Liaison Unit at Dbayeh, and the remains of five soldiers. In exchange, Israel returned to Syria 291 soldiers, 13 civilians, and the remains of 74 Syrian soldiers.

On 20 May 1985, in an exchange referred to as the "Jibril Deal," three IDF POWs, Hezi Shai, who had been captured in the battle of Sultan Ya'aqub on 11.6.82, and Yosef Grof and Nissim Salem, who had been capturned in Bhamdoun on 4 September 1982, by the PFLP, were returned to Israel in exchange for the release of 1150 terrorists.

On 12 September 1991, the body of a Druse IDF soldier Samir Assad from the village of Beit Jan, who had been held since 1983 by the DFLP, (Naif Hawatma) was returned to Israel in exchange for Israel's allowing DFLP members Ali Adallah and Muhamad Hallal to return to Israel after having been exiled since 1986.

On 1 July 1996, the bodies of Joseph Fink and Rahamim Alsheich who had been captured during a terrorist ambush on 17 February 1986 were returned to Israel. In exchange, Israel returned the remains of 123 terrorists. The Hizbullah released 19 SLA soldiers and in exchange the commander of the SLA released 20 prisoners from the Al-Hiam prison facility and 25 additional detainees as a gesture of goodwill.

On 5 September 1997, 12 IDF personnel were killed in Lebanon during an unsuccessful commando raid. Due to conditions in the field the soldiers were unable to locate and bring back the body of Sergeant First Class, Itamar Iliyah, 21 years - old. He was declared a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown. His body was returned to Israel on 25 June 1998. 

On January 29, 2004, an Israel businessman (Elchanan Tenenbaum) and the bodies of 3 IDF soldiers (Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Suwaeid) missing since October 2000 were returned to Israel by Hezbollah in exchange for 430 Arab prisoners and the bodies of an additional 60 terrorists.

Second Lebanon War

On June 29, 2008, the bodies of two IDF soldiers (Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev) "missing in action" since their patrol was attacked and they were abducted by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006, were returned to Israel in exchange for 5 Hezbollah terrorists, including mastermind Samir Kuntar, and the remains of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists.

Gilad Shalit

On October 18, 2011, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was released after five years in Hamas captivity in Gaza in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners over two periods from Israeli jails. Shalit was kidnapped by a Hamas terror squad that infiltrated into southern Israel on June 25, 2006, and had not been seen or heard from since outside of the release of a audio recording and a video tape in 2009.

Read more about the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal, CLICK HERE.

2014 Legislation

The Israeli Knesset voted 35-15 on Monday November 3 2014, passing a measure aimed at quelling the Israeli practice of negotiating with Palestinians through prisoner releases and exchanges.  Israeli officials have frequently negotiated with prisoner exchange agreements, most famously when negotiating for the release ofGilad Shalit during which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for the captured IDF soldier.  Following that mass release, 60 of the released individuals were subsequently arrested during Summer 2014 prior to Operation Protective Edge.  Since Israel began negotiating with prisoner exchange deals in 1985, they have released over 3,500 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.  The number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is estimated to be around 5,000. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Naftali Bennet was quoted stating that "terrorists should die in jail," after the Israeli Parliament voted to approve the measure.  The new law prohibits the release of Palestinian prisoners who are serving life sentences in Israeli prisons. In the past during negotiations Israelis have released Palestinians from Israeli prisons by cutting their sentence short.  Under this new law, for a Palestinian individual who is incarcerated for life in an Israeli prison early release is not up for discussion or appeal until they have served at least 15 years of their sentence, and the sentence cannot be cut short to less than 40 years.  This law applies to individuals incarcerated from November 2014 onward, and does not apply to prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, who may still be released in negotiations.  The law still provides for the Israeli President to pardon prisoners as they please. 

Critics of the legislation argue that now when Israeli soldiers are taken captive by Hamas or other Palestinian groups, it will be significantly harder to negotiate for their release now that certain prisoner negotiations are off the table.  They claim that the government is effectively "tying it's hands" in the negotiations process by passing this legislation. 

Sources: Israel Defense Forces