The missing Israeli sergeant’s uncertain fate. His family denies his death. Hamas claims his capture
The IDF finally Tuesday, July 22, listed Golani soldier Sgt. Oron Shaul, aged 20, from Poriya Elite, "missing" after an initial attempt to declare him presumed dead. Sgt. Shaul was in the IDF’s APC, in which the entire squad was killed by a Hamas anti-tank missile early Sunday morning. Six bodies were recovered from the blasted and burnt tank and identified. The seventh, Oron Shaul, was not found or identified. After an exhaustive probe and tests, the army informed his parents that they had not found his remains, but there was no way Shaul could have possibly survived this devastating attack.
The IDF was anxious to nullify the Hamas claim to have taken the missing soldier prisoner, although no real evidence was offered that he was in their hands, whether alive, dead or wounded. It was important to head off the coming extortions in military or political coin for a name tag, a singed ID card or even a body part.
And indeed, Hamas – once branded “a trafficker in bodies” by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas – announced Tuesday that it would make Israel pay dear for ever scrap of information about the missing soldier.
Another statement issued by Hamas later stressed that its price for information about Sgt. Shaul was separate from its terms for a ceasefire.
And still, although the haggling had started, there was no proof that Sgt. Shaul had fallen into enemy hands or was even alilve.
The family of the missing soldier was firmly opposed to the line taken by the IDF. A relative, Racheli Gazit made a statement to reporters, saying: “So long as the family sees no irrefutable proof of the soldier’s death, we refuse to accept it.” She added that while tests continued and no contrary evidence was forthcoming, Sgt. Oron Shaul would be deemed to be living.
This episode is just one instance of the military’s policy of fashioning a picture of events in the Gaza War for public consumption whic may turn out to be contradictory and is often wide of reality.
Another insistence of this was Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s comment Monday that Israel would finish off Hamas’ terror tunnels “in a day or two.”
A senior IDF officer said the next day that most of the tunnels had been found, but another “week or two” were needed to fully map the structures and demolish them.
Col, Uri Gordin, commander of the Nahal Brigade, was the first senior officer leading the war in the Gaza Strip to level with the public about the state of play in his sector, the northern area of Beit Hanoun. He confirmed that while his men had located most of the tunnels, they were not yet ready to be demolished.
He went on to confirm that the IDF faced a hard fight against Hamas, which he said was a tenacious and coherent enemy. The Islamists, he said, were throwing into battle everything they had in the way of manpower and weaponry for repelling the IDF assault on their infrastructure. “We are at war,” said Col. Gordin.
Earlier Tuesday, debkafile ran a report under the heading: Israeli forces are fighting hard to win their first battle against Hamas, a savage and tenacious enemy
The battle for Shejaiya, the Hamas stronghold on Gaza City’s outskirts, was still unresolved Tuesday, July 22, indicating that the Islamists were not giving up. Indeed, fresh Hamas reinforcements appeared to have taken up new positions in the battle zone during the night. They may have arrived through Hamas’ many-branched tunnel system.
Every few hours, the IDF spokesman releases two sets of figures: Israeli casualty statistics and the number of IDF strikes against Hamas. He has little to say about Israel’s military movements. Neither Israeli nor foreign correspondents have been permitted to accompany IDF troops fighting in the Gaza Strip – a policy the IDF has pursued since the second Lebanon war of 2006. Military leaders are therefore free to manage the data, human and electronic, coming out of the war, including images from the various fronts, without independent coverage. The public sees the same IDF surveillance footage day after day.
This policy reduces the hazards faced by Israeli forces and keeps their scale and identities secret from the enemy – and that is good for Israel’s war effort.
On the other hand, it creates a widening gap between the “official version” and the real state of affairs on the battlefield. Since most people have access to relatives on the front – not to mention prolific rumor mills powered by the social media – the credibility of national war leaders suffers.
Official communiqués are studded with impressive figures. Tuesday morning, the IDF was reported to have struck 3,200 Hamas targets since the start of the operation. In the last four days, the soldiers located 23 secret tunnels and 36 shafts leading into Hamas’ subterranean complex, and killed 186 Hamas operatives in combat. Israel lost 27 officers and men in the same period.
Those figures are telling in that they illustrate the hardships confronting the IDF from a ferocious enemy which refuses to crack under air or ground assault.
Because the Golani Brigades’ losses in Shejaiya were so heavy, IDF chiefs had no choice but to disclose information about the combatants on this front. But no one, aside from the combatants and their officers, knows what is going on in the other arenas to which the five special IDF task forces have been assigned. There is no news for instance from the southern sector of Rafah and Khan Younes. or the northern towns of Shati and Zeitun. No one knows how many Hamas tunnels are left to be destroyed – and where – before the IDF claims to have completed this critical part of its counter-terror mission
By any military standard, the IDF has the edge over Hamas. But the battle still needs to be won.
This situation has stiffened Hamas’ resistance to any of the ceasefire proposals taking shape in various parts of the region in the last couple of days. Its leaders feel strong enough to carry on fighting and holding out for better terms than those on offer at present.
Hostilities are therefore likely to drag out for an indeterminate period.
For Israel, the diplomatic clock is ticking too fast. As the warfare stretches out without a decisive battle on at least one Gaza front, the rising casualty toll threatens to undermine Israel’s ability to stand up to the pressures of international truce diplomacy.