Captured soldiers or civilians achieve more than killings to affect the nerves of the Israeli public, one expert says, so Hamas has adapted its strategy and is trying to kidnap more Israelis.
Israel's army is continuing its ground offensive. As bloody fights in the Gaza Strip are costing more people their lives, the radical Palestinian movement Hamas is adapting its strategy. The group is out to demonstrate its unbroken will to fight with continuing rocket strikes in Israel. There are also signs that Hamas wants to kidnap Israelis to use as bargaining chips in negotiations later. The Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, said they kidnapped an Israeli soldier on Sunday (20.07.2014) night. A spokesman for Israel's military said he would neither confirm nor deny the claim.
Aside from that, however, Israel says there have been numerous attempts at kidnapping Israelis in the Palestinian territories. That recalls the case of the young officer Gilad Shalit, who was held captive for five years by Hamas.
The recent escalation in violence also began with a kidnapping. Three Israeli yeshiva students ranging in age from 16 to 19 were captured on June 13 in the West Bank. For days, the entire country sympathized with the three young men's families. Israeli psychologist Irwin Mansdorf says a stark identification process took place.
"Every Israeli identified with the three youngsters that were kidnapped and murdered and thought that their own children could have been in that place," said Mansdorf, a researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. After the three were found murdered, thousands came to their funerals.
In the meantime, Israel's military began conducting large-scale raids to uncover alleged supporters of Hamas. Presumably in revenge, a group of Israelis murdered a 16-year-old Palestinian. More and more rockets were being fired toward Israeli cities, which led the country's military to respond with massive air strikes and a ground offensive. More than 500 Palestinians have now died, and the number of deaths on the Israeli side is approaching 30.
Anything to avoid kidnappings
The Israeli public reacts differently to fallen soldiers than it does to kidnapped officers. "In many ways, the not knowing, the vulnerability of being at the mercy of anonymous captors, is worse than having to lay a soldier to rest," commented Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer after the three youths' murders. He wrote in a guest column for "The Guardian" that the Israeli army has been instructed to shoot at the captor's vehicle when a comrade is captured. The idea is preventing kidnappings at any cost, even if it means the Israeli soldier in question gets killed along the way.
In 2006, the army was unable to prevent Gilat Shalit's capture. A Palestinian troop managed to infiltrate Israeli land through a tunnel, surprising guards at a post. Two soldiers were killed in the attack, and the Israeli public was shocked.
Hamas understands the effect of capturing Israelis. Killing a soldier may underscore Hamas' ability to fight, but Mansdorf says such acts do little else for the organization. "It's a sad thing for the family - it's a horrible thing. Israel mourns. You bury the soldier, and that's the end of it," he explains. "But a soldier that's alive - again we saw this in the Shalit episode - has tremendous value."
A thousand Palestinians released for Shalit
For years, the government in Jerusalem tried to free Shalit or negotiate his release. Ultimately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to an exchange. In return for the then 25-year-old Shalit, Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011. Some of them had been charged with killing Israelis. The ratio of one to 1,000 drew massive criticism in Israel at the time. However, Mansdorf says, the public identification with Shalit effected the necessary political pressure.
Mansdorf says Hamas is pointedly using kidnapping as a means of psychological warfare to generate this effect. "We know that one of the objectives of Hamas is to kidnap an Israeli soldier or even an Israeli citizen," the psychologist says. That view is supported, he adds, by what's been seen in Palestinian groups' recent attempts at infiltrating Israel. Mansdorf says they were found to be in possession of handcuffs and drugs that could sedate victims.
With underground tunnels they have made themselves, Hamas and other Palestinian groups aren't just securing their supplies from Egypt. They want to push into Israeli territory, as they did in 2006. On Monday, the Israeli army claimed to have killed at least 10 Hamas fighters who had come through two tunnels. The urban warfare taking place in Gaza means that Israeli units are risking falling into Palestinian fighters' hands. That, Mansdorf warns, could lead to a repeat of the Shalit case.