Whatever happened to POWs?

It feels like the time between having one of our sons being held by the enemy has been far too short. Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin has been kidnapped and is now, according to the IDF, in the hands of the enemy. For their part Hamas have denied even that they kidnapped Goldin. Their spokesman made a statement saying;

“The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades has no information on this soldier. We have lost contact with one of our combatant groups, which was fighting in the sector where the soldier went missing and it is possible that our fighters and this soldier were killed,”

One would expect that Hamas would conform to their usual behaviour and be showing off about the fact that they had managed to grab not an Israeli soldier but an officer. It’s too early to tell whether they are simply attempting to buy some time to get Goldin to a safe location away from the IDF or whether they genuinely don’t know where he is. With all the IDF activity it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Hamas HQ genuinely has lost contact with their forces in the area.

With the detonation of a suicide bomber among Goldin and the fire fight that erupted in the wake of it there is certainly the possibility that he didn’t survive. In fact at this point the only thing that is clear is that we know almost nothing about what’s happened to him. So i’ll put the speculation to one side.

What we do know is that in the conflict against Hamas there’s no such thing as a Prisoner of War (POW). Although we in Israel react with anguish to the kidnapping of any of our soldiers the truth is that this is an ugly situation that we are all aware is almost certain to happen in combat. Usually soldiers captured by the enemy in war have the status of POW. Sadly in the war against Hamas there is no such thing.

The popular image of the POW is something brought to us largely through Hollywood blockbusters such The Great Escape. Where we see allied soldiers during World War II being held in POW camps. Here in the Middle East that fate has never been more than a pipe dream. Throughout the history of Israel our prisoners have been mistreated, tortured and abused. With the passage of time and the changing of Israel’s enemies from states to terror organizations the status of the POW has essentially disappeared.

There will be no repatriation of combatants in the wake of the current hostilities in Gaza. Even the terminology we use has changed  Israeli soldiers aren’t “taken prisoner” they are “kidnapped”.

This is a world where luxuries such as the Geneva and Hague conventions governing the treatment of prisoners seem to have ceased to exist. Both for Israel and her enemies. For our part we also are unsure of the label to give to terrorists taken prisoner during conflict. Guantanamo Bay provides us with as vivid an example as one could ask for as to the extent that even superpowers grapple with the problem of how to deal with an enemy combatant who considers himself free from the rules of war.

If Hadar Goldin is in the hands of Hamas there is no authority that governs their treatment of him and no way for Israel to communicate with him. Essentially when our soldiers fall captive (and it is inevitable in war that some will) they fall into a black hole. Instead of being repatriated at the end of the military confrontation they become a political prize to be bartered over. With all of the death and destruction necessitated in war the POW is perhaps one of the most tragic. Even more so then being killed in action. Israel can guarantee her soldiers absolutely nothing should they be taken captive other than that we will do our best to get them back. As the case of Nachshon Wachsman has shown it’s not even good enough to find out where they are being held. Intelligence information needs to be incredibly detailed to be able to mount a successful rescue.

Ultimately the fact that there is no provision made for POWs is simply a sad example of just how barbaric wars are in the Middle East. I hope that we find Hadar and get him home. I am not optimistic. I wish he were a POW rather than a kidnapped soldier.

About the Author
Marc Goldberg is the author of Beyond the Green Line, a story his service in the IDF fighting through the al Aqsa Intifada