Israel’s never-ending search for a soldier: The search for Ron Arad

"One side says, he should be returned at any price. [The other side says] no price should be paid to the murderers. It is truly a dilemma, because no side is right, and no side is wrong.”
Palestinian children purchase food from a street vendor next to a Hamas police station adorned with paintings of abducted Israeli solider, Gilad Shalit, and air force pilot, Ron Arad on March 29, 2010 in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

We’re curious….

How far will the State of Israel go to bring back its missing soldiers? The answer is…very far. That was on display last week, when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett revealed that Mossad agents recently went on a mission to uncover new information about Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator who has been missing since 1986 and is presumed dead.

Announcing the operation in a speech at the Knesset, Bennett explained that freeing captives “is a Jewish value that became one of the holiest values of the State of Israel.” The operation to uncover information about Arad 35 years after he was captured might “look strange, and perhaps a little extreme to those looking at Israel from the outside,” the Prime Minister said, “but it is what defines us and sets us apart.”

What exactly did this operation involve? According to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language media outlet, the Mossad agents extracted DNA from a body buried in Al-Nabi Shayth, a village in Lebanon, to determine whether it was Arad. Meanwhile, another Arabic media outlet, Rai-al-Youm, reported that Mossad agents kidnapped a former Iranian general in Syria, took him to an unnamed country in Africa and interrogated him about Arad, before eventually releasing him.

Prime Minister Bennett did not disclose further details, saying only that “it was a complex, wide-scale operation” carried out by male and female Mossad agents, and took place last month.

With Ron Arad back in the news in Israel and internationally, we wanted to unpack Israel’s commitment to bringing back missing soldiers and the conversation in Israel on this issue. Why is Israel still trying to find out what happened to Arad 35 years after he was captured? What are the limits of what Israel is willing to do to bring these missing soldiers home?

What happened to Ron Arad?

Before we answer those questions, here’s some background on who Arad was and what happened to him before he was captured.

Arad was born in 1958 in Hod HaSharon, a city in central Israel. Right before he was captured, Arad was studying chemical engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He was married and had a daughter, Yuval, who was a year and three months old when her father embarked on a mission from which he never returned.

On October 16, 1986, during the First Lebanon War, 28-year-old Arad was carrying out an operation in Southern Lebanon. A bomb dropped by the F-4 Phantom jet Arad was flying exploded too early and ripped off one of the plane’s wings, forcing Arad and the pilot to parachute out of the plane. Although the pilot was rescued by an Israeli Air Force helicopter, Arad was taken by the Lebanese Shiite group Amal and could not be located.

In his book, “Rise and Kill First,” Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman described the search for Arad as “massive, the largest rescue operation in Israeli history. A Mossad official who was involved…said it was ‘the biggest search operation conducted in modern history for a single person. There was no stone that we left unturned, no source that we didn’t enlist, no bribe that we didn’t pay.’”

“It all came to nothing,” Bergman continued. In 1989, three years after Arad disappeared, Israel abducted two Hezbollah officials in an effort to locate the missing airman. But “their interrogation revealed nothing, and Hezbollah responded with indifference to an offer to begin negotiations for an exchange.”

Israel has attempted many times since then to rescue Arad or find out information about his fate. In 2003, an Israeli intelligence agent was killed while trying to rescue Arad. In 2004, Israel set up a commission to learn about his fate based on transcripts of interrogation sessions Israel conducted with a leader of the Shite Amal Movement, and other intelligence. 

The commission concluded that Arad had died in the 1990s in an Iranian Revolutionary Guards facility in Lebanon. Though it is widely assumed that Arad is dead, various intelligence reports have offered different conclusions about the timing and circumstances of his death.

Why is bringing back captives so important in Judaism?

The Jewish state’s ongoing efforts to search for Arad and bring back its missing soldiers has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In the Mishneh Torah (Matanot Aniyim, “Gifts to the Poor,” 8:10), the legendary scholar Rambam (Maimonides) underscored the great importance of the mitzvah of redeeming captives (pidyon shevuyim):

“The redemption of captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and providing them with clothing. There is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives, for a captive is among those who are hungry, thirsty, and unclothed, and is in mortal peril.”

In a more general sense, Jewish tradition also upholds the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving or rescuing a life, as a major value. In fact, saving a human life is considered so important that we are even commanded to suspend the laws of Shabbat in order to do so (this principle is known as, pikuah nefesh doheh Shabbat, “rescuing a life in danger takes precedence over Shabbat”).

At the same time, Jewish tradition also offers some caveats about how far our concern for an individual person’s safety should extend. In other words, how will the entire community also be impacted by this? The Mishnah (Gittin 4:6) raises this concern, stating, “Captives may not be ransomed for more than their value.”

According to Rabbi Aviad Tabory, the idea behind this Mishnah is that “we must act responsibly for the entire people of Israel and not necessarily think only about the individual. We must consider the welfare of the community against the welfare of the captive.”

For example, Rabbi Tabory explains, the Talmud points out that freeing a captive could create an excessive burden on the community if everyone is required to give large amounts of money to secure the person’s release. The Talmud also warns that paying large sums of money in exchange for captives is a dangerous precedent that will have the effect of encouraging more kidnappings.

The Rishonim (leading rabbis from approximately 1000 – 1500 C.E.) added their perspectives to this debate, with some arguing that if the life of the captive is at risk, then there is no limit to the price we must pay for the person’s release (because of pikuach nefesh). This very same debate over what price should be paid to free prisoners is happening right now in Israel related to Ron Arad. Is it moral to risk lives in order to bring back missing soldiers? What about risking lives to retrieve the body of a soldier who died?

Gilad Shalit and Israel’s missing soldiers

Ron Arad is not the only missing soldier who has captured the attention of Israelis and the Jewish world. A similar episode was the case of Gilad Shalit. However, the two stories had very different endings: unlike in the case of Arad, Israel succeeded in freeing Shalit and bringing him home. Also, while Israel knew that Shalit was being held somewhere in the Gaza Strip, Arad’s whereabouts were unknown.

Shalit was kidnapped in 2006, when Hamas terrorists attacked the tank he was serving in along the Gaza Strip. Hamas held Shalit in Gaza for the next five years until Israel and Hamas reached a prisoner exchange deal. In the agreement, Hamas handed back Shalit to Israel in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

The prisoner exchange deal enjoyed widespread support from the Israeli public, with a poll at the time finding that 4 out of 5 Israelis backed the agreement. However, a debate emerged over whether the trade-off was worth it and if so many Palestinian prisoners should be released. Some of the released prisoners were serving life sentences for conducting terrorist attacks that killed Israelis. Freeing them presented obvious security concerns for the Jewish state.

Many families of terrorist victims, and some members of the Israeli government, opposed the deal, arguing that it would harm Israeli security and incentivize terrorists to abduct more Israelis. Uzi Landau, Israel’s national infrastructure minister at the time, expressed this view, calling the prisoner swap “a great victory for terrorism.”

There is evidence to support Landau’s claim. In fact, Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari told the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Hayat that the prisoners released as part of the swap killed 569 Israelis. Additionally, research by Almagor, an Israeli association of terror victims, found that about 80% of Palestinian prisoners released by Israel returned to terrorist activity.

Ultimately, Israel decided that Gilad Shalit was worth more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. This past June, 10 years after he was released from captivity, 34-year-old Shalit married his fiancé in Israel. Shalit won his freedom, but was the price ultimately worth it?

Daniel Bar Tal, a political psychology professor at Tel Aviv University, described the struggle over Shalit and prisoner exchanges this way: 

“Here we see the basic dilemmas between the individual and the collective, and we see victim pitted against victim. Gilad Shalit is a victim who was violently kidnapped… One side says, he should be returned at any price. But the families of those killed in terrorist attacks and the people who were wounded in those attacks are victims, too, and they say that no price should be paid to the murderers. It is truly a dilemma, because no side is right, and no side is wrong.”

Diversity of perspectives

What did Israelis think about the recent operation to find out more about Arad? Herb Keinon, senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post, posed the question of why Israel still continues to search for the missing airman, asking whether “Israel’s continued interest in the fate of Arad, and its willingness to risk people’s lives…to put an end to the mystery,” is an unhealthy “obsession” or a positive “source of pride.”

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy expressed his strong view that the search for new information about Arad reflects an unhealthy “obsession.” In an op-ed titled, “Israel’s Obsessive Worship of the Dead,” Levy wrote, “The insane hunt for the body of missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad can only be described as state-sponsored necrophilia.”

To make his case, Levy noted that “Israel searched for the watch belonging to Eli Cohen, a spy that was executed more than half a century ago, [and] for the overalls and shoes belonging to [fallen tank commander] Zachary Baumel.” He underscored that Israel has paid too high a price — risking lives and investing large amounts of money — in its search for Arad.

Meanwhile, Nehemia Shtrasler, another Haaretz columnist, expressed the opposite view, arguing that “Israel should do everything to bring its soldiers home.” The continued efforts to find Arad, Shtrasler wrote, send an important “message to the public that the nation does not abandon its fighters. Rather, it continuously makes a supreme effort to uncover their fate and bring them home.”

Shtrasler added that this message “is crucial when sending soldiers into battle…Every soldier wants to know that the government will do everything it can to rescue him from captivity. If we abandon POWs, soldiers will think twice before running ahead on the battlefield.”

Tami Arad, Ron Arad’s wife, also shared her perspective, and weighed in on the question of whether Israel should risk lives to get information about her husband. In a Facebook post, she said that her family would like the search for Arad to continue for as long as possible. But she also said the family has requested that no soldiers’ lives be risked in these operations.

The family also “asked that if it is discovered that Ron is not alive, they don’t pay a price to bring him back. Not because it is not important to us to bring him home, but because we believe this message will save the lives of captives in the future.”

In addition to the question of whether Israel should continue the search for Arad, the conversation in Israel also focused on whether the recent operation was successful or not. While Bennett claimed that the mission was “a successful one that was carried out while meeting exceptional operational goals,” Mossad chief David Barnea reportedly deemed it “a failure.” Barnea told his associates, according to Channel 12 News, that the “operation was bold, daring and complex. But it wasn’t a success, it failed.”

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