Announcing the agreement for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the delicate balance he had to strike between the desire of the Shalits to see their son home and victims of the Palestinian terrorists set to be freed from prison as part of the deal. Emphasizing his “deep responsibility to the security of citizens,” Netanyahu said the agreement with Hamas struck the “right balance.”
Officials indicate some of the 1,027 prisoners being swapped have “Israeli blood on their hands.” According to Ynet, of the 450 prisoners to be released in the first phase, 280 are serving at least one life sentence and are responsible for the deaths of 599 Israelis. It’s worth taking a look at some of the considerations the government weighed in making this difficult decision.
SENDING A MESSAGE TO THE TROOPS
With a universal draft in Israel of 18 to 21-year-olds, the IDF consistently reinforces its message to families of recruits that commanders will pull out all stops to bring a soldier home from the battlefield, a key morale-booster in a nation that’s known much conflict.
Uri Ehrenfeld, a former Israeli prisoner of war, told Israel Army Radio Wednesday that every day during his captivity in Syria he knew in his heart Israeli leaders were doing their all to bring him home.
“My heart is with the victims of terror,” Netanyahu told the Israeli people before Tuesday's cabinet meeting, because “I’m one of them.” Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, a commander of an elite commando unit, was the only Israeli killed in the successful 1976 raid on Entebbe freeing airline hostages hijacked by terrorists.
Netanyahu's televised statement can be seen here:
JEWISH RELIGIOUS IMPERATIVE
“The Jewish people is a special people, responsible for one another" Netanyahu said. "Our sages teach that those who save one Jewish life, it's as if they have saved an entire world.”
Every Sabbath, synagogues around the country said prayers for Shalit’s release. In fact, there’s a requirement in Jewish law requiring leaders to do their utmost to secure the safe return of hostages.
Jonathan Tobin in Commentary Magazine describes the tradition which is based in various Bible passages including “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy kinsman” from Deuteronomy 15:7:
The concept of pidyon shvuyim or the redemption of captives is a religious imperative for Judaism with deep roots in centuries of suffering. Jewish communities in the Diaspora have traditionally reduced themselves to penury to save hostages taken and done with the approval of religious authorities.
MIDDLE EAST IN FLUX
One factor guiding Netanyahu in negotiations for Shalit’s release was a sense the clock is ticking in the Middle East. Israel Channel 2 News quoted a source who said Netanyahu sped up negotiations over concern that the political instability in Egypt since the “Arab Spring” revolution could make future negotiations over Shalit impossible.
Netanyahu said he believes Israel reached the best deal possible at this moment in history, “a moment of storms” in the Middle East. He said he didn’t know if a better deal was reachable, if at all.
Netanyahu described Shalit’s conditions as “an extremely cruel captivity,” pointing out Hamas never allowed the Red Cross to visit him.” The only sign of life was this video of the captured soldier in 2009:
The Jerusalem Post points out that Netanyahu in his 1995 book Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, warned exactly against the kind of deal his government found itself approving. Exchanging terrorists for kidnapped soldiers, he wrote then, is “a mistake that Israel made over and over again” and that refusing to release terrorists from prison was “among the most important policies that must be adopted in the face of terrorism.”
“Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.”
Max Boot in Commentary Magazine commends Israel for doing everything possible to win release for its soldiers, but worries the deals encourage bad behavior:
…Israel’s continuing willingness to enter into hostage deals inevitably creates an incentive for more hostage-taking in the future and generally undermines the credibility of its anti-terrorist deterrent by creating an image of Israeli “softness.” This gives hope to jihadists of the “you love life, we love death” camp.
PUTTING TERRORISTS BACK ON THE STREET
Boot criticizes the “softer side” of Israel’s tough fight against terrorism.
Israel is not only one of the biggest killers/jailers of terrorists but also one of
the biggest releasers of jailed terrorists.
He refers to a 2008 report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that examined the long-term impact of freeing terrorists:
Since 1985 the State of Israel has freed over 10,000 Palestinians who were serving prison sentences for hostile activity or terror actions, and this resulted in the murder and death of hundreds of Israeli citizens.
In some cases, hundreds were released in exchange for one or several Israeli captives or corpses. Others were freed as part of peace talks “goodwill gestures.” Still others had their sentences commuted or served their full sentence.
… In the terror acts committed by these freed terrorists, hundreds of Israelis were murdered, and thousands were wounded. In the case of the [Ahmad] Jibril deal in 1985, the Israel Defense Ministry determined that 114 out of the 238 who were released returned to terrorism.
STRENGTHENING RADICAL PALESTINIAN FORCES
The release of a large number of Hamas activists, terrorists and potential leaders to their homes in the West Bank could pose a political challenge to Palestinian Authority [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Fatah party, the more moderate political rival to Hamas. Another group of prisoners will be released to Gaza. Others will be exiled to countries reported to be Egypt and Jordan.
An op-ed in Haaretz calls Hamas the “big winner” in the swap deal:
Hamas' standing in the territories will be bolstered dramatically. The boost PA President Mahmoud Abbas received from opting to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state despite Washington's opposition will be completely overshadowed by the political capital Hamas is likely to reap from this deal. Whereas Abbas' gains were purely symbolic, Hamas will be able to lead the celebrations over 1,027 returning prisoners...
Moreover, the return of hundreds of Hamas prisoners to the West Bank, where its political and military situation has until now been dire, will give the organization there a huge injection of new energy. Though about 70 prisoners are to be deported to Gaza, those returning to the West Bank will include some of Hamas' key political and military leaders.
For the PA, ruled by the rival Fatah party, the deal is a severe blow. Abbas will now be forced to contend with a strong, popular rival, one whose infrastructure has been suddenly revived after having been almost wiped out. The hundreds of freed Hamas prisoners could also pose a military threat to his rule, and he will have to decide quickly how to respond.
A victory for Hamas, perhaps, but it could ironically end up being a Pyrrhic one. With the injection of a new crop of political activists back in Gaza, senior Hamas officials could face new challenges of their own in maintaining the mantle of leadership.
Despite the dubious cast of characters set to be freed, Israeli officials tell the media no “arch-terrorists” will be released. Staying put in prison: Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences), Abdullah Barghouti (67 life sentences), Hassan Salameh (38 life sentences) and Ahmed Saadat who assassinated an Israeli government minister.
Whether you think the deal was a good one or bad, it’s worth remembering American presidents including Ronald Reagan faced the same dilemma over negotiating with terrorists.
That the Israeli nation is relieved to finally see one son return after five long years is certain, the question remains, who will pay the future price for this difficult deal?