Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange worth cost
Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 27, 2011 10:10
If a terrorist organization was to capture an American soldier and hold him ransom for the release of more than a thousand of its convicted members serving time in prison, would the United States give in to the demands?
If you answered "no," you would be correct. Our country has a longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists. In addition, such negotiations are deeply unpopular with many Americans on both sides of the aisle.
But this attitude does not hold true in Israel, where just last week its government met the demands of the terrorist organization Hamas in exchange for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In 2006, Shalit was 19 years old and patrolling the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip when Hamas militants captured him and took him prisoner.
After five years without visits from the Red Cross or international supervision of the conditions of his captivity, Israel agreed to release 1,027 jailed Palestinians in exchange for Shalit's freedom.
Among the hundreds of Palestinians released are those responsible for plotting some of the most infamous terrorist attacks of the last decade, including Husam Badran and Wafa al Bass. Badran was sentenced to life in prison for the 2001 bombing of a Jerusalem Sbarro restaurant and several other attacks in which dozens of Israeli civilians were killed. Al Bass is one of 27 women released as part of the deal, and she was originally sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2008 after a failed attempt to blow herself up inside an Israeli hospital. According to Hamas, the released prisoners are collectively responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis.
Israel's deal with Hamas understandably angered the families of those killed in the attacks. To them, justice was not served and the prisoners' premature release was disrespectful to those who lost their lives. However, while I have great respect for the victims' families, this is a unique case where a narrow window of opportunity appeared to secure Shalit's freedom.
The regional politics of the Arab Spring are changing the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in unpredictable ways, and a deal for Shalit's release may have proven to be impossible in the future.
In addition, such exchanges are not out of character for the Israeli government. Israel made similar agreements in the past leading to a total exchange of more than 13,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for just 16 Israelis. And even then, many of those Israelis returned home in coffins, killed at the hands of their captors.
But why should Israel agree to such unbalanced deals? Unlike the U.S., military service there is compulsory. Most captured Israelis, like Gilad Shalit, did not volunteer for enlistment. They are serving a mandatory term of duty and did not have a choice in subjecting themselves to the inherent risks involved with military service. Because of this, I believe the country has a special responsibility to do everything in its power to bring those captured soldiers home despite the heavy price.
Indeed, a recent poll shows many Israelis appear to agree. It found that 50 percent fear the release of the prisoners will lead to an increased frequency of terrorist attacks; despite this, 79 percent still support the deal made with Hamas.
Bradley Burston of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz made the case for the deal and summarized my position succinctly, saying, "It is, by any measure, chillingly dangerous. And it was the right thing to do."
Welcome home, Gilad.