Israel’s Missing Soldiers: A Sacred Principle And Implications For The Conflict – Analysis


By Malte Gaier

The principle of returning ‘missing in action’ (MIA), ‘prisoners of war’ (POW), fallen soldiers and their remains has been sacrosanct since the Israel Defense Forces’ inception in 1948. Since then, the debate on prisoner deals and the price that the State of Israel has to pay for its citizens has been transformed into a much larger context. Furthermore, it is at a point where Israel’s principle of ‘We don’t abandon soldiers in the field’ has turned against its maker, as Ronen Bergman (Yedioth Ahronoth) stated.

That the MIA issue has become part of the Middle East Conflict and an integral element of the negotiation matrix within the peace process became evident when the Israeli political and military echelon, backed by an overwhelmingly supportive public opinion, linked the kidnapping of soldiers to the national security interest and defined it as a casus belli in the forefront of the 2006 Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008/09. Like most of Israel’s wars these conflicts were labeled as ‘war of no choice’ (milhemet ein-brera) in which the MIA issue gained momentum as an escalating factor that itself made history.

Where protracted conflict and the perception of continuous existential threats are part of everyday life, a nation-at-war is prepared to deal with fallen soldiers as a compelling logic of the military social order of battle, sacrifice, death and commemoration. In Israeli society, the case of missing soldiers illustrates a scenario in which this order is disturbed. As Danny Kaplan (Bar-Ilan University) pointed out, ‘identification with missing soldiers triggers and sustains an even greater experience of familiarity and closeness. The missing are situated at a juncture between the living and the dead. On the one hand, they represent a strong presence and the prospect of returning to everyday life. On the other hand, they signify heroic sacrifice similar to that of fallen soldiers.’

The cases of Israel’s missing soldiers indicate the culmination and intertwining of societal, religious, political and security factors enhanced by a militarized Israeli national ethos. Beyond the extraordinary public display of solidarity with fallen and missing soldiers, death or captivity of Jews is closely associated with central beliefs embedded in traditional halachic law. The centrality of the return to Zion followed by redemption stresses a territorial dimension in which both the repatriation of the sacrificial dead to the sacred land and the rescue of prisoners from non-sacred lands is obligatory. They justify all necessary means that contribute to the ‘redemption’ of captives (Pidyon Shevuyim). Collective redemption is only possible when the missing or dead that have crossed the borders between sacred and non-sacred lands are returned or repatriated. Against this background, Israel’s MIAs and POWs are often referred to as ‘Israel’s lost children outside the borders of the land’ (Veshavu Banim Le’gvulam), a biblical term that refers to Jeremiah 31.17. Another component involves halachic burial customs which require immediate burial of all parts of a corpse as the body represents the site of potential resurrection.

Being the first public Zionist institution that introduced kashrut and halachic law in 1948, such religious requirements strongly affected the IDF’s policy both on the operational and strategic levels and resulted in the establishment of a special unit of military field rabbis and consultation mechanisms with rabbinical authorities in Israel and abroad regarding the orders given in cases of abductions. Israeli media cited an inofficial directive (Nohal Hannibal) according to which soldiers are told that their comrades will be given the order to open fire on the abduction team without consideration for the abducted soldier’s life. The high political and diplomatic costs as a result of prisoner exchanges includes of course the risk for the lives of other soldiers. During a dramatic rescue attempt in Bir Naballah, West Bank, in 1994, abducted Sgt. Nahson Waxman and an elite unit soldier were killed. The importance of retrieving all mortal remains and transporting them to Israel has resulted in what an Israeli journalist called a ‘cult of the dead bones’ and life threatening rescue missions in which platoons were confronted with heavy losses.

The Israeli position to returning captives and remains of Israeli soldiers at any cost has resulted in a series of disproportional prisoner exchange deals with PLO, Hizbu’llah and Hamas:

  • Following the 1978 Litani Operation, Israel released 82 Fatah operatives, almost all of them sentenced to life terms, in exchange for the soldier Avraham Amram, taken prisoner in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
  • In May 1985, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin as defense minister ordered the release of 1.150 Palestinians in the Jibril swap in exchange for three Israeli soldiers.
  • In October 1986, air force navigator Ron Arad was captured by the Lebanese Amal militia after parachuting from his plane which was shot down over Sidon, Lebanon. Although Hizbu’llah’s Hassan Nasrallah and UN bodies investigating on the issue had repeatedly confirmed Arad’s death – Arad is believed to have died between 1993 and 1997 in Lebanon – Israel involved international figures such as Austria’s former president Kurt Waldheim who was offered rehabilitation and removal from the US watch list with regard to his role during the Nazi era, for conducting indirect talks with Iran on the Arad case.
  • In January 2004 Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst mediated a swap in which businessman and army reserve officer Elhanan Tannenbaum, kidnapped by Hizbu’llah in 2000, and the bodies of three soldiers were returned to Israel in exchange for 435 Palestinians.

In the recent case, the Israeli government and Hamas finalized a deal to which they in principle had agreed beforehand. Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, born in Nahariya on 28 August 1986, had been abducted by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades during an attack on the Kerem Shalom command post on 25 June 2006 and has since then been held captive in Gaza. Certainly, there are numerous factors that generated a climate in favor of a solution. 2011 bore witness to remarkable events in the region and in Israel: The Arab uprisings, Israel’s Rothshild Blvd. type of social uproar and Mahmud Abbas’ move towards a Palestinian State at the UN. These events put enormous domestic and international pressure on Bibi Netanyahu’s government which in turn tried to relieve it with the Shalit deal. Beyond that, the decision to go for the exchange of 1.027 Palestinian prisoners might have been a result of changing perceptions on the part of Shin Beit and Mossad. The new directors of both institutions, Yoram Cohen and Tamir Pardo, contrary to their predecessors, came to the conclusion that from the security perspective, Israel can handle and limit the potential threat imposed by those released Palestinians ‘with blood on their hands’.

Regarding the likely regional implications of the Shalit deal:

  • The deal will improve Hamas’ image in Gaza and Palestinian society in general. Through terror, Hamas has forced Netanyahu into negotiations – a prime minister known as one of the strongest advocates for an uncompromising approach to terrorism. Israel’s concessions might strengthen the hardliner faction under Ahmed al-Jabari at the cost of the legitimacy of the Damascus-based leadership of Khaled Mashaal.
  • President Mahmud Abbas whose popularity was boosted when he insisted on his demand for a Palestinian state at the UN will be challenged by the success of Hamas. This will be especially the case in the political struggle for Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas.
  • Egypt’s new leadership will profit from the deal that was brokered by its intelligence. Egypt has underlined its strong regional role by displaying both the ability and willingness to negotiate between Israel and Hamas: For Israel, stable relations with its Arab neighbor are essential in the interest of regional and cross-border security. Further, the trend of improving relations between Egypt and Turkey, with which Israel is in a state of permanent crisis, causes concern. Israel’s interest to block this trend and to improve ties with Egypt is reflected in the recent public apology for an incident in which Egyptian forces were killed in a cross-border fire-fight.

Malte Gaier,
PhD Candidate, Islamic Studies and lecturer at the University of Erfurt (Konrad Adenauer Scholar) working on comparative analysis on religious-political movements in Pakistan and Israel.

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