Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

Bringing Gilad Home

Like most Israelis, the Rosenblums were glued to the radio on the day of Gilad Shalit’s release. After he had been safely returned to Israel and reunited with his parents, who had devoted themselves non-stop to securing his release over his nearly 2,000 days in captivity, we were sitting in the sukkah considering the implications. One of my sons remarked, “There will be plenty of time for evaluating the implications of his release later. But for now, the deal is done. Let’s just rejoice with his family that he is back.” That seems to pretty much sum up the attitude of most Israelis. Polls taken after the announcement of the prisoner exchange showed between 75% and 80% of Israelis supporting the exchange - a remarkably high degree of consensus about anything in this notoriously contentious country. Yet that support was not blind. In the survey showing three-quarters supporting the deal, over three-fifths nevertheless agreed that the exchange would increase the incentives for future terrorist attacks.

In short, even supporters of the agreement acknowledge that many Israelis may die as a result of the exchange. The difference, however, is that they all know Gilad, as well as his devoted parents, Noam and Aviva, by face, whereas those probabilistic future casualties are as yet faceless and unknown. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Mnookin, chairman of Harvard University’s program on negotiation and author of Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate; When to Fight, pointed out that the Israeli public was behaving as human beings typically do: Gilad Shalit is what psychologists call an “identifiable being,” whereas all those endangered by this deal are mere statistics, what psychologists call “statistical lives.” A good deal of psychological research shows that human beings will incur far greater costs to save one identifiable being from immediate peril than they will to secure the safety of mere statistical lives.

 

For the last five and a half years, the Israeli media has played upon that tendency – described by Mnookin as “entirely human but not rational.” The plight of Gilad Shalit has not been allowed out of our consciousness for one moment, and the campaign of his parents demanding that the government pay any price to obtain his release has received saturation coverage.

 

The media campaign on behalf of Gilad Shalit is but one example of many campaigns in recent years where a mobilized media has anointed a protest movement with its favor and provided maximum coverage to the viewpoint of the protestors. The Four Mothers Movement, which led to the precipitous withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and to the rise of Hezbollah, is another example, and so are this summer’s “social justice” protests, which led the government to appoint a committee and adopt its recommendations – including a $3 billion cut in the defense budget – in order to re-prioritize the budget.

 

Had the media chosen, there were other “identifiable beings” whom it could have focused on with respect to a possible prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit, beginning with the families of those who lost loved ones at the hands of terrorists whose release Hamas was demanding. Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian woman who accompanied the suicide bomber who killed 15 in the Sbarro pizza parlor in downtown Yerushalayim, for instance, boasted afterwards that she would be eventually be freed from Israeli jails, without expressing any remorse. Little media attention focused on how the surviving members of the Shijveschuurder family, who lost both parents and two siblings in that August 2001 bombing, must have felt upon watching Tamimi’s boast fulfilled. Among other terrorists released were the masterminds of the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya, which killed thirty and triggered Operation Defensive Shield; those who fashioned the suicide belts used in a Haifa bus bombing in which 17 were killed; and the Palestinian savage who waved his bloody hands from the window of a Ramallah police station after participating in the lynching of two IDF reservists at the beginning of the Second Intifada. And these are just the tip of the iceberg of cases where the savagery of those released and the faces of the victims could have been made fully “identifiable” but weren’t.

 

Interestingly, only in the wake of the exchange of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit did a spate of editorials and analysis appear questioning both the rationality and morality of the exchange, in light of future consequences. Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz, who initially proclaimed the exchange a “triumph of old-fashioned Israeli solidarity,” lamented a week later, “We conduct our national affairs like children – without wisdom, without morality and without mature responsibility.” Such words, however, were rarely heard while Gilad Shalit was in captivity. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who feels compelled to oppose everything Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does, announced her opposition to the prisoner exchange several days after it took place, despite having remained silent on the subject for the preceding 5 ½ years.

 

Critics of the exchange and the government policy over the last five years that led up to it had plenty to complain of. First, the failure of the intelligence services to locate the place where he was being held, which was described by recently retired Mossad Chief Meir Dagan as a horrible failure. Even worse was the failure of the IDF. The same IDF that rescued over 100 hostages held thousands of kilometers away at Entebbe, within days of their hijacking, never even set up a special unit devoted to the rescue of Gilad Shalit. And whether out of fear of international criticism or a simple lack of imagination, neither the government nor the IDF ever seems to have considered how it could have brought pressure on Hamas to release Shalit. In other words, Israel never considered how it might switch from a defensive posture vis-à-vis Hamas to an offensive one.

 

On June 21, 1972, Israel captured Syrian intelligence officers to be used as bargaining chips for three Israeli airmen being held by Syria. The commander of that operation, known as Operation Crate, was current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and one of those participating was a young lieutenant named Binyamin Netanyahu. Operation Crate was a success, and within less than a year the Israelis were returned in a prisoner swap.

 

Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, would have been an opportunity for Israel to employ a similar tactic by capturing senior Hamas personnel and holding them hostage for Shalit. As senior officials of a quasi-government illegally holding an Israeli soldier, and which has consistently proclaimed itself as at war with Israel, Hamas officials, right on up to Prime Minister Haniyeh, would have been perfectly legitimate targets for capture. It appears that then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did consider such a strategy, or wanted Hamas to think he was considering it. But at every stage, he was held back by Defense Minister Barak, who was eager to retreat from Gaza as soon as possible in light of international criticism of Operation Cast Lead. The older Barak thereby embarrassed his younger self.

 

Nor were other lesser forms of pressure on Hamas and the Palestinians tried. For instance, while Shalit was being held incommunicado without Red Cross visits, Palestinian prisoners were being allowed to obtain college degrees in Israeli jails, family visits, and regular contact with the outside world. As Ma’ariv’s Ben Caspit noted, had the Palestinian prisoners not been held in summer camp conditions, there would have been a lot more pressure on Hamas earlier to release Shalit. When a new prison commissioner tightened conditions for security prisoners, Palestinian society reacted sharply.

 

In short, the government deliberately put itself in a position where a grossly disproportionate prisoner exchange was the only possible means of winning Gilad Shalit’s return. As a consequence, it has now been forced to release some of the most experienced and lethal Palestinian terrorists, many of whom were quick to pledge a speedy return to the murder of Israelis. Since 2002, 182 Israelis have been killed by those released in earlier prisoner exchanges, and there is no reason to believe the recidivism rates among those released will be any lower this time. For some of those released in exchange for Shalit, this was already their second time being freed in a one-sided prisoner exchanges. The clear example of terrorists guilty of the most heinous crimes being set free within less than a decade of their crimes sharply reduces any deterrence the threat of punishment carries for terrorists. They do not have to weigh whether the cost of killing Israelis is likely to be rotting away in an Israeli jail for the rest of their lives.

 

In addition, Israel has fueled the cult of suicide bombing into which Yasser Arafat whipped the Palestinian population since the end of Camp David. Bassam Nasser protested in the pages of the Jerusalem Post the term terrorist being applied to those Palestinian prisoners with Jewish blood on their hands. Everyone in Gaza worships and idolizes them and views them as heroes, he wrote.

 

Israel lost any ability to demand from other nations in the future that they not succumb to the demands of terrorists. Netanyahu once eloquently laid out the case against prisoner releases on the grounds that such releases “only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief… [B]y leading terrorists to think that such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.” But that Netanyahu is no more, and were he to reappear would have no credibility. Israel has, in the jargon, “incentivized” the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers for use as bargaining chips to secure the release of Palestinian terrorists.

 

And perhaps worst is what the popular pressure for the exchange reveals about the internal fiber of Israeli society. Israel has the better position over the long run than its enemies, but only if it plays its hand with cool and without panic. Instead, in Shavit’s words, Israelis worked themselves “into an emotional frenzy,” “went crazy,” and “lost our senses.” Israel has only survived, in the face of enemies bent on its destruction for over six decades, because of its willingness “to send thousands to their death and hundreds into captivity,” without collapsing emotionally over every young life lost, Shavit wrote.

 

During the Second Lebanon War, the civilian population of Israel’s north absorbed missiles for a month, rather than send young Israeli soldiers on a ground mission to suppress that missile fire. The civilian population protected the soldiers rather than the other way around. The hysterical demands for Gilad Shalit’s release suggest that we have not fully learned the lessons of that military failure.

 

What, then, can Israel do to minimize some of the adverse consequences of the exchange for Gilad Shalit and help protect itself from having the emotions of an entire nation toyed with again? The first and most obvious step would be to institute the death penalty for terrorist acts resulting in the deaths of Israeli citizens. Imposition of the death penalty would remove the apparent assumption of many terrorists today that no matter how heinous their crimes, they will one day be freed in a prisoner exchange. By decreasing the number of terrorists being held prisoner, it would also lessen the incentive to capture Israeli hostages to secure prisoner releases.

 

Second, Israel should employ a standard of reciprocity to Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails. If Israeli captives are allowed visits from the Red Cross, so will Palestinian prisoners. If not, not. If Israeli captives are allowed visits from family or to communicate with them, so will Palestinian security prisoners. If not, not. Palestinian society is sensitive to the treatment of Palestinian prisoners, and there is at least some evidence that Israel’s retraction of certain prison privileges was intensely felt in Palestinian society, and may have helped push Hamas to tone down some of its most extreme demands – i.e., for the release of Marwan Barghouti or the head of the organization that plotted the killing of Israeli cabinet minister Rechavam Ze’evi.

 

No one would fault the Shalit family for doing everything possible to win the freedom of their son. But one wishes that more of the Shalit family’s efforts had been directed at foreign governments and not just the Israeli government. More pressure should have been exerted both by the Shalits and the Israeli government on Western governments. Those governments that continued to shower aid on Hamas, even though Hamas was deliberately holding a kidnapped Israeli soldier, in contradiction to all standards of international law, should have been forced to justify their aid. Hopefully, Israel will manage that diplomatic effort more effectively next time.

 

For sure, let us all rejoice for Gilad Shalit and his family. But let us immediately get to work to prevent the necessity for any such celebrations in the future.

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