The mood across Israel was changed in a dramatic fashion on Tuesday last week when the news was made public during the early evening that an agreement had been reached with Hamas for the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After 5 long years during which Hamas had allowed no access to him at all, not even by human rights organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, it seems as though Gilad Shalit will finally be on his way home.
Of course, the agreement that was finally struck by David Meidan and the Israeli negotiating team comes at a high cost to Israel. The objective behind the kidnapping in the first instance, was to extract a high price from Israel by insisting that prisoners in Israeli jails be released in exchange for any agreement to release Shalit. This is exactly what they have achieved, even though it has taken more than 5 long years to finally reach the agreement. Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in order to secure the freedom of one IDF soldier. Many of these prisoners are serving life sentences, and have “blood on their hands” for murdering innocent Israeli civilians. Among those due for release are those who planned the Sbarro and Moment restaurant bombings in Jerusalem, those who planned the Seder night bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya and those who planned the kidnap of Gilad Shalit. There are also many others who were involved in numerous bus bombings, and others who have committed similar heinous crimes. Along with the euphoria of knowing that Gilad will finally be returned to his parents and to the people of Israel, have come searching questions about the terms of his release.
As we sat in our Sukkah on Wednesday evening celebrating the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the conversation inevitably turned to the deal that was struck for Gilad’s release. There were some sitting around the table who felt that the price was too high, and that the deal should never have been done on these terms. All the old concerns and issues were raised to justify why this deal endangers Israel’s security going forward. One friend said that he thought that the prisoner exchange shows a weakness in Israeli society that we are prepared to contemplate a deal that will return only one of our soldiers for more than a thousand of theirs. It is his view that our one soldier should effectively be sacrificed in order to protect the security of Israel going forward. The welfare of one soldier should not be allowed to destabilise the security of the entire State of Israel by placing convicted murderers and terrorists back on the streets. This friend has a daughter currently serving her two years in the IDF. When I asked how he would respond if the soldier in question was Heaven forbid his own daughter, he brought me the story of Joseph Stalin who refused to accept a deal with the Germans for a prisoner exchange to return his own son, Yacov, from captivity whilst a soldier in the Red army. Yacov ultimately died while being held by the Germans. My friend’s point is that the state is larger than any of its individuals, and that the government should behave accordingly.
As expected, the prisoner exchange has come under a great deal of resistance from the families of the victims who were maimed and murdered at the hands of the prisoners due for release. Many have already made it clear how insulted they feel by the release of the murderers of their loved ones. We can all understand their pain, and the fact that they feel that this insults the memories of their dearly departed. The government went out of its way to arrest and imprison the perpetrators of these horrible attacks. Now, it seems that all is being thrown away by the prisoner exchange deal. This view would be entirely valid if our circumstances were normal. Unfortunately, like so many other things in Israel and the Middle East, things are never straightforward.
My view is that we should do all that we can to respect the memories of those who have fallen in the line of duty protecting their homeland, and those whose lives have been taken by those seeking to destroy our country and our people. While doing so, however, we are also forced to confront the new realities and circumstances that arise each day. I think that the strength of our society lies in the fact that we do value each individual as if he is the only one. While I agree that the price seems unbalanced when we exchange 1 for more than 1,000, the message that it sends to our serving soldiers and their families can only help to strengthen the resolve and the strength of our military, and of our society as a whole. Our security forces can operate in the knowledge that they are more than simply a number, and that the government will do all that is required to protect them, even under the most extreme situation. The argument that, through this prisoner exchange, the government is releasing murderers and terrorists to kill and maim again is valid. The security services have said that they can take care of this situation, and I believe that there are so many potential terrorists and murderers in the West Bank and Gaza, that the release of this motley crew does not significantly increase the risk. And while the exchange deal does reinforce what the terrorists already knew when they kidnapped Gilad, which is that Israel values each of its individual soldiers and will be prepared to strike an unbalanced prisoner exchange deal to release him, I don’t believe that this dramatically increases the risk of other soldiers being kidnapped in the future. This is because the risk has been at the highest level for many years, and the fact that 5 years have passed without another soldier being kidnapped is not because they have not tried. Regular attempts have been made to kidnap soldiers, and we should expect that such attempts will continue.
Israel is forced to exist under extreme and severe circumstances. The risk of a terror or missile attack against her civilians is ever-present. The act of rounding up those who have brought death and destruction on Israelis in the past is more about justice than it is about reducing the risk levels. It is clear that removing such individuals from a situation where they can repeat their crimes does give some increased level of security. I am not convinced, however, that arresting these individuals, even when related to 1,000 people, serves to dramatically improve Israel’s security. Apparently the Shin Bet security agency agrees with this assessment, and has given its approval to the prisoner exchange. The Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen described the prisoner exchange deal as “a bad deal, but the only one available to us”. This sums it up for many in Israel. We would prefer not to have to release criminals back onto the street, but the alternative of not doing so is worse.
The Israeli government last night released the names of the first group of prisoners set for release. This is to allow the 48 hour period that the law requires for any legal challenges to the prisoner exchange before it goes ahead. Objections to the exchange have already been filed with the High Court of Justice, and the court will hear these petitions during the course of today. Assuming that the court gives its approval to the exchange, it is expected that Gilad Shalit will return to Israel during the course of Tuesday. For one family and for many Israelis, this will be a moment of great joy and the ultimate fulfilment of the government’s responsibility to each of its citizens. For many families, it will reopen painful wounds and memories. Our joy is tempered by their pain, and the sacrifice that these fmailies have made will never be ignored or forgotten. Unfortunately, nothing can return their loved ones, and it is my hope that they will find a way to feel the joy of the Shalit family and other Israelis. We wait expectantly for the moment when Gilad will emerge, alive and well, into the arms of his family and the Israeli nation.