Israelis see echo of Gilad Shalit in new seizure of a soldier in Gaza

When word went out Friday that Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old second lieutenant in a squad dismantling tunnels in the Gaza Strip, had been captured by Hamas-affiliated gunmen, one name immediately came to Israeli minds: Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier whose abduction by Gaza militants in 2006 became a five-year ordeal that ended only with Israel’s release of more than 1,000 prisoners.

For Gershon Baskin, an American-Israeli peace activist who helped negotiate Shalit’s release through a Hamas member he met at an academic conference in Cairo, the immediate connection between Goldin and Shalit meant only bad news for hopes of a peaceful solution to the fighting in Gaza.

“Shalit was captured on Israeli soil, and you didn’t have 40,000 soldiers at war in Gaza,” Baskin said. “No Israeli prime minister could survive even the thought of a prisoner exchange now. This is the victory picture Hamas wanted.”

The deal to release Shalit took five years to complete because both Israel and Hamas started and stopped negotiations repeatedly, Baskin said. Israeli critics at the time pointed out the risk of releasing hundreds of convicted attackers. Their claims were not unfounded. One of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal shot and killed Israeli Baruch Mizrahi as he drove near Hebron in April.

Of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal, more than 100 have been re-arrested since, including 55 who were detained in June during the Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank after the disappearance of three Israeli teens.

Israel twice failed to free Shalit through military action, including during the last major Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, the winter invasion in 2008 and 2009 that left 1,000 Palestinians dead.

Shlomo Brom, a former director of strategic planning for the Israeli army, predicted that Goldin’s capture would trigger a widening of the Israeli ground operation.

“There is an attempt underway to find him. But if they brought him into the city of Rafah, the soldiers are not going to go into Rafah to go find him,” he said, referring to the southern Gazan city near where Goldin was captured. “You have to plan, you have to prepare for that.”

Brom suggested the army might consider dividing Gaza into two pieces, north and south, to limit the ability of militants to move a captive soldier. The army denied Friday that it had expanded its Gaza operations.

Israelis are particularly sensitive to captured soldiers. The nation has a universal draft, and most families identify with the pain of parents hoping to find their children.

When Shalit was captured, his father, Noam, seized that feeling. He left his job as an engineer and threw himself into getting his son released. For five years, the Shalit family maintained a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Noam Shalit headed cross-country marches to demand his son be released, and tens of thousands of Israelis followed him. Gilad Shalit’s face appeared on bumper stickers, billboards, banners and in every major newspaper throughout his disappearance. Noam Shalit declined to be interviewed for this story.

Personal details about Goldin quickly became part of the Israeli news cycle: A member of the Givati brigade, he hails from the town of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv. Israeli Channel 2 reports that he was recently engaged and that he and his twin brother were sent to fight in Gaza. A family member who answered the phone at his parents’ home declined to comment.

There were other details that drew links between the Goldin and Shalit cases. Shalit was in a tank guarding the border when Hamas operatives slipped into Israel via a tunnel. The militants fired at the tank and killed two of Shalit’s comrades. Shalit handed himself over to his captors, who led him back through the tunnels deep into Gaza.

Goldin was part of a squad dismantling a tunnel near Rafah when militants attacked them, according to the Israeli military. Two Israeli soldiers also were killed when Goldin was captured.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri claimed Friday that Israel had fabricated the kidnapping to “to cover monstrous massacres, especially in Rafah.”

But kidnapping Israeli soldiers is a hallmark tactic Hamas uses to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. There are more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Releasing the 55 prisoners freed in the Shalit deal and re-arrested since June has been one of the conditions Hamas set for a cease-fire. On several occasions in the current operation, Israel has discovered Hamas militants wearing Israeli military uniforms, or carrying tranquilizers and handcuffs – evidence of plans to kidnap soldiers.

Islamic affairs expert Alaa Rimawi of the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies said this is because kidnapping “is the only way to release prisoners. I advise strategists in Israel to understand the file of prisoners is the hottest file the Palestinians have, and they will do anything to release prisoners.”

Earlier in the current operation, Palestinians flocked to the streets in Gaza and the West Bank to celebrate rumors of a different captive soldier, Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, later declared dead and not missing. A Gaza filmmaker is also reportedly turning the Shalit capture into a full-length feature called “Fleeting Illusion.”

Baskin said he anticipated a significant escalation, including an operational order “to conquer Rafah, to level a big part of the city, to find every tunnel and hiding place under Rafah, and the same thing at the Shifa hospital,” he said, referring to a Gaza medical center where reports say Hamas has installed its leaders.

Baskin said he is trying to arrange for a humanitarian corridor to allow women and children to leave Gaza for Sinai in anticipation of widened fighting.

“There’s not going to be a negotiation,” he predicted. “This is not going to be a Gilad Shalit. What (this kidnapping) has done is signed the death warrant of the leaders of Hamas.”