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Lessons from Terrorism Negotiations and the Deal for Gilad Schalit

For more than a decade, I studied terrorism and hostage negotiations.  In the course of that work, I interacted with some of the most prominent people here and abroad who were involved either as negotiators or response team members in hostage and barricade situations. There was NYPD Captain Frank Bolz, arguably the best hostage negotiator in the business. There was the Dutch psychiatrist, Dirk Mulder, a negotiator whose skill was legendary throughout Europe. There were the members of the then West German GSG9, whose Entebbe-style raid at Mogadishu was studied at war colleges. But one of the most memorable of my encounters was with an Israeli general who was in charge of some of Israel’s most difficult hostage and barricade situations. In preparation for my interview, I studied a number of the assaults he commanded. I noticed that no terrorist survived any of those assaults.

This was in the mid-seventies, when Palestinian terrorist groups were secular, leftist in orientation, and had not yet embraced jihad or suicide.The Palestinian operations teams required an escape plan. There had to be the chimera of survival, even if none existed in reality.

In the course of the interview, I said to the general that I had noticed that in none of the assaults he commanded did any of the terrorists survive, and I asked him why.

His initial response was evasive. He talked about the confusion that takes place in an assault, the impact of automatic weapons on a firefight, and other aspects of military tactics.

I persisted. Zero was an improbable number.

Finally, with some annoyance he looked at me and said, “So you notice that.”

“Yes,” I responded, “that’s the point of my question.”

He relaxed a bit, smiled a knowing smile, looked me dead in the eye, and without emotion said, “They notice it too.”

They did. Such Israeli tactics tore the enthusiasm from secular terrorists. Such organizations as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were harvesting their training cadre, their seed corn, in order to conduct operations.

The point this Israeli general made was similar to a response Frank Bolz gave when someone once asked him why in the course of negotiations he didn’t promise everything and deliver nothing. In the inimitable wisdom that made Bolz the icon of hostage negotiators, he responded by saying that a negotiation was not just about that single hostage situation. It was also about hostage negotiations yet to come. If he lied, that would come back to haunt him.  He couldn’t promise everything, but every hostage taker at the other end of the telephone trying to make a decision about what to do would know that if he struck a deal, it would hold. That credibility preceded all negotiations. It was as inherent to the process of negotiation as it was intrinsic to the outcome.

Although hostage and barricade situations involving terrorists seldom occur now, and the negotiation protocols used with terrorists who wanted to survive do not work with terrorists who want to die, the primary lesson of those days is still important. Hostage negotiations are not about one incident. Each and every incident is a vehicle for communication to many different audiences, including the next group of terrorists.  What you do in any one incident has an impact on the course of future events. This is why Frank Bolz didn’t promise something he couldn’t deliver. It was why an Israeli general commanding high-profile assault cases used the terrorist survival rate to send a message to those who contemplated going on the next mission.

What is so troubling about the deal for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and Israel’s other lopsided trades is the message it sends to the terrorists.  Israel will trade a thousand for one. All the terrorists have to do to rescue their murderers is to kidnap an Israeli and strike a deal. Hamas, in its welcoming statements to its returning murderers, exhorted its fighters to kidnap Israelis.

The deal enabled the Palestinians to lionize and show compassion for the released murderers. Amnesty International found moral equivalence between an abducted soldier and people incarcerated because they had blood on their hands. The exchange provided Hamas with a major propaganda victory, especially over the competing Fatah, for whose members it also negotiated releases.

Wafa al-Biss, who wanted to blow up an Israeli hospital unit that had been giving her free medical care, met in her home in North Gaza with school children who came to celebrate her freedom. She urged them to follow in her footsteps and become martyrs. At the conclusion of the meeting, the children sang nationalistic songs and of their desire to give their souls and blood for Palestine.

In Lebanon, Samir Kuntar, who killed  four-year-old Einat Haran by smashing her head against a rock with his rifle butt, called for kidnapping more Israelis. Over the protests of Einat’s mother, whose husband was also killed in the attack, Kuntar was released in 2008 as part of an exchange for the bodies of three Israelis. In Lebanon, Kuntar is celebrated as a national hero, and the murderous Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who is now shooting his own people in the streets, awarded Kuntar a medal.

The Schalit deal, as the one in 2008, says to the terrorists, if you are incarcerated in Israel, it is only a matter of time before you can be rescued. We have a visible route for you to freedom. Even if you kill a four year old with your own hands, we can deal for your release.

All the Schalit deal will produce is more terrorists, more victims, and more families burying loved ones. These are now nameless and faceless people, but in the months to come these victims will have to be enumerated as part of the calculus of this decision.

Israel is a country in the Middle East, not in Western Europe. Israel should understand with whom and what it is dealing. Clearly, it doesn’t or it wouldn’t reward a culture that celebrates as a hero a man who killed a four-year-old girl with the butt of his rifle — a  culture that equates the return of the murderers of innocents with the return of a soldier.