The IDF’s doctrine 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 occasions entered into indirect talks to bring back its kidnapped soldiers. Israel has engaged in prisoner exchanges with both Arab nations and terrorist groups, sometimes releasing thousands of prisoners in exchange for a few soldiers.
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: 1,098 Egyptians, 28 Saudis, 25 Sudanese, 24 Yemenites, 17 Jordanians, 36 Lebanese, 57 Syrians, and 5,021 Palestinians and others. Israel made separate agreements to exchange prisoners with every one of the countries that held Israeli prisoners.
On February 27, 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 March 7-9, 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 February 2, 1949, and were completed on March 3, 1949. All prisoners of war were exchanged between Israel and Lebanon on March 24, 1949. On April 4, 1949, six Israeli POWs returned from Syria; between May 2-8 others were returned. On July 21, 1949, the last exchange was made with Syria.
The first incident in which Israelis were captured in between wars was on September 30, 1954, when Egypt seized the ship “Bat Galim” at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal. Ten sailors were arrested. They were released on January 1, 1955, after the intervention of the UN Security Council.
In 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 January 14, 1955, his remains were returned to Israel. His four companions were returned to Israel on March 30, 1956, in exchange for 41 Syrian soldiers.
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 four 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 January 21, 1957, and was completed on February 5.
Israel and Syria carried out a POW exchange on December 21, 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.
During the Six-Day War, 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 June 15, 1967, and ended on January 23, 1968, with a POW exchange with Egypt.
An Israeli Navy officer and seaman who were taken prisoner 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 a prisoner exchange. In this exchange, some members involved in the Lavon Affair were returned in February 1968. Two IAF pilots who were taken prisoner when their plane was downed in an attack on an Iraqi air base, Captains Itzhak Glantz-Golan and Gideon Dror were returned in exchange for 428 Jordanian prisoners.
In POW exchanges with Syria, Israel traded 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. The Syrians refused, however, to return the body of Mossad agent Eli Cohen who had been hanged in Damascus.
On April 2, 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 remain missing.
During the War of Attrition (1967-1970), 12 Israeli soldiers were captured by the Egyptians, and three by the Syrians. On August 16, 1970, a wounded IAF pilot was returned from Egypt and, on March 29, 1971, one soldier was returned from Egypt. On June 9, 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 June 3, 1973, three Israeli pilots, Captain Gideon Magen, Captain Pinchas Nahmani, and Lieutenant Boaz Eitan were returned after three years of captivity in Syria in exchangefor 46 Syrian prisoners.
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 November 15-22, 1973, during which POWs held by both sides since the War of Attrition were returned.
On April 4, 1975, Egypt returned the bodies of 39 Israeli soldiers killed in action during the Yom Kippur War in exchange for 92 terrorists and security prisoners who had been held in Israeli prisons.
On April 5, 1978, a truck carrying six Israeli soldiers and a civilian had mistakenly crossed Israeli lines in Lebanon and encountered terrorists near Rashidia. Four soldiers were killed in this incident and one was taken prisoner. On March 14, 1979, Israel traded 76 terrorists for the soldier.
On September 3, 1982, eight soldiers that were in a lookout post near Bhamdoun were captured by terrorists. Two of the soldiers were handed to Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP, and the rest were held by Fatah. On November 23, 1983, the six soldiers held by the Fatah were returned in exchange for 4,700 terrorists held in the Ansar detention facility in Lebanon, and another 65 terrorists that were held in Israel.
On November 23, 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 April 9, 1982, were released in exchange for 100 security prisoners and 4,500 detainees from Ansar.
In an exchange on June 28, 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 May 20, 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 November 6, 1982, and Yosef Grof and Nissim Salem, who had been captured by the PFLP in Bhamdoun on September 4, 1982, were returned to Israel in exchange for the release of 1,150 terrorists.
On September 12, 1991, the body of a Druze soldier, Samir Assad, who had been held since 1983 by the DFLP, was returned to Israel in exchange for Israel allowing DFLP members Ali Adallah and Muhamad Hallal to return to Israel after having been exiled since 1986.
On July 1, 1996, the bodies of Joseph Fink and Rahamim Alsheich, who had been captured during a terrorist ambush on February 17, 1986, were returned to Israel in exchange for the remains of 123 terrorists. Hezbollah released 19 SLA soldiers in exchange the commander of the SLA, the release of 20 prisoners from the Al-Hiam prison and 25 additional detainees.
On September 5, 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. He was declared a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown. His body was returned to Israel on June 25, 1998.
On January 29, 2004, an Israel businessman (Elchanan Tenenbaum) and the bodies of three 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.
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 five Hezbollah terrorists, including mastermind Samir Kuntar, and the remains of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists.
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 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 outside of the release of a audio recording and a video tape in 2009.
The Knesset voted 35-15 on November 3, 2014, for a measure aimed at halting the Israeli practice of negotiating with Palestinians through prisoner releases and exchanges. The decision was prompted in part by the arrest of 60 individuals who had been released in the Shalit deal.
The law prohibits the release of Palestinian prisoners who are serving life sentences in Israeli prisons. In the past, Israel released Palestinians by cutting their sentences short. Under this law, a Palestinian incarcerated for life cannot be considered for an exchange until they have served at least 15 years of their sentence. This law applies to individuals incarcerated from November 2014 onward. Critics of the legislation argued that it would make it harder to negotiate for the release of Israeli captives by making some prisoners ineligible for exchange.
Since 1985, Israel has released more than 3,500 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.
Source: Israel Defense Forces