Israel’s Shalit Dilemma

As negotiations intensify for a deal to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas to Gaza in June 2006 when he was 19, Palestinian Media Watch has released an important bulletin on how Israel’s radically lopsided prisoner deals encourage further kidnappings. The bulletin gives 50 statements from various Palestinian media that show how Palestinians have come to view kidnapping as a key strategy to secure the release of large numbers of terrorists jailed in Israel.


One of these statements occurred in an animation on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV on July 6, 2009:

Gilad Shalit: “Mommy!”
Hamas child: “Who is it, Gilad [Shalit]? [Laughing] Poor you! You’ve been rotting here for 3 years, and no one cares.”
Gilad Shalit: “Please release me!”
Hamas child: “Are you asking me to be a collaborator and a traitor, that I’ll betray my people and my homeland? Are you crazy!”
Gilad Shalit: “I have an idea: You [Hamas] go and capture more soldiers, they [Israelis] will be afraid and accept your terms to free me.”
Hamas child: “Ah, they will free you not because they love you, but to prevent anxiety among your soldiers, so they won’t be afraid, and stop their military service.”
Gilad Shalit: “True.”
Hamas child: “Gilad, stay here, and pray that [Hamas] succeeds in capturing another [soldier], so you’ll be freed. Bye.”
Gilad Shalit: “Mommy! Mommy! (in Hebrew) Free me!”

Apart from the clearly perceived utility of kidnapping, the cruel mockery of Shalit, who has been held incommunicado for three and a half years, is chilling. It is not the first such instance; a year ago Shalit was mocked before a crowd of 150,000 in a festive event in Gaza.

Considering that Israel is apparently unable to rescue Shalit militarily and that, absent a deal, he may be doomed to spend the rest of his life in such an environment, Israel’s interest in such a deal may be more understandable despite the appalling terms. Reportedly, the price now under negotiation for this one soldier is the freeing of about a thousand convicted terrorists from Israeli prisons, including some responsible for the planning or perpetrating of some of the worst attacks.


Rationally speaking, the case against such a deal appears superior, and staunch opponents include Israel’s national security adviser and the head of Mossad, as well as many (not all) relatives of victims of previous terror attacks. A 2008 study reported that out of over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel has freed since 1985, over 50 percent have resumed terrorist activity. In a more specific case, the study cited evidence that the 400 Palestinian prisoners and five others Israel released in a 2004 trade with Hezbollah, in return for a kidnapped Israeli civilian and the corpses of three soldiers, had subsequently been responsible for the murder of at least 35 Israelis.

Against such grim considerations stands the cardinal value Israel places on retrieving soldiers or — to express it better negatively — on not abandoning them. That consideration reportedly leads Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to be one of the strong proponents of going through with the swap. Upholding the principle of retrieving captives (which is also deeply rooted in Jewish tradition) is believed to be important for Israeli soldiers’ morale and willingness to undertake dangerous missions.

And beyond the intense and often bitter argumentation stands, of course, emotion. Since Shalit’s kidnapping, Israeli television — part of a mainstream media that clearly favors paying the price for his freedom — has flooded the population with images of the soldier (and of his parents who campaign tirelessly on his behalf) to an extent that is difficult to imagine. The emotional pressure was ratcheted up with Hamas’s release three months ago of a video of Shalit in captivity. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are parents of soldiers like Shalit, and polls find a large majority of citizens favoring a deal despite the dangers.


The deal is now said to hinge on Israel’s demand that many of the most dangerous terrorists be sent to Gaza or abroad and denied residence in the West Bank and, additionally, on Israel’s refusal to free several of the most egregious terrorists on Hamas’s list. But if the deal eventually goes through (as looks likely), Israel’s political and security elite appear to be agreed on one point: this has to be the last such deal, and after it a new policy has to be announced.

Major points of such a new policy reportedly include:

if Israel sees fit to do an exchange, it will be on the basis of 1:1, and failure to respond in timely fashion to such terms will serve as a warrant to pursue and bring to justice those deemed responsible for the kidnapping; failure of the enemy to accord its prisoners the rights due to him will result in a commensurate downgrade in Israel’s treatment of the enemy’s prisoners, to the minimal requirements under law; any soldier serving near border regions will be administered a soluble chip, so that his immediate whereabouts can be located (this technology exists); any terrorist released who carries out a terror attack and is caught will receive the death penalty, [and] this applies retrospectively, not only for the current exchange.

Some of those who oppose the deal will be able to live with it if it means that Gilad Shalit is home and that Israel will turn over a new leaf. Dealing with chillingly cruel enemies is difficult. Mistakes are inevitable, but learning is crucial.



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