In: Israeli Politics14 Jul 2010
Over the last few weeks, something very wrong has happened. The incredible show of unity between all Israelis who want to see Gilad Shalit brought back home safely has become misguided and their actions have become misplaced. Instead of protesting against our enemies and pressuring Hamas to let Gilad go free, Israelis started protesting their own government asking it to make ridiculous concessions for the freedom of the captured soldier.
Let me make one thing clear from the get-go: We all want to see Gilad brought back home safely. Anyone who claims otherwise is being dishonest. My disagreement on this issue is not as to our goal, but rather as to the correct strategy to get to that goal. Our goal is one: Bring Gilad Shalit back home! However, many people are using methods which, instead of helping bring Gilad home, are strengthening Hamas’ ridiculous demands.
There is something else I wish to make clear: My argument is not against Noam and Aviva Shalit, the parents of Gilad. If, chas veshalom, I was ever put in a remotely similar situation, I would also probably try every possible solution to save my child. However, while their emotional reaction might be justified, the reaction of the thousands of people who join them in pressuring the government into ridiculous concessions is irrational and dangerous. My argument is with those people.
In the next few paragraphs, I want to go through a thorough analysis of the various reasons why I believe we Israelis need to stop pressuring our government into ridiculous concessions for Gilad’s freedom and rather start pressuring Hamas and the international community to free the illegally captured soldier.
A Little (Only Partial) History
Entebbe, Sabena, Nachshon Waxman – Paying the price for captives
Israel, unfortunately, has a long history of hostage taking and military captives.
Sabena Plane: In May 1972, a plane was taken hostage by terrorists and landed in Tel Aviv’s airport. The Israeli commando, Sayeret Matkal, stormed the plane and freed the hostages. The commando took control of the plane in 10 minutes. One Israeli got killed and some wounded, including Benjamin Netanyahu, our current Prime Minister, who was a soldier on mission.
Operation Yonatan: One of the most famous incidents of hostage taking in modern history took place on July 1976. Terrorists hijacked an Airfrance plane going from Israel to Paris. A rescue mission was then planned through which the hostages were freed. However, 5 Israelis were killed- 4 hostages and one Israeli soldier, Yoni Netanyahu – brother of our current Prime Minister.
Nachshon Waxman: Nachshon was an Israeli soldier captured as he hitchhiked back home from a training course. The terrorists showed a video of him in captivity and gave an ultimatum after which he was to be killed. A rescue mission was organized. The rescue mission failed and Nachshon was killed. The commander of the team charged with his recue was also killed.
Summary: Israel is willing to risk its most precious possession for the freedom of its captured soldiers and hostages: the life of its current soldiers. If a rescue mission is possible, Israel will not hesitate to use it. However, when it is not possible, the question of exchange deals then comes up…
Jibril Agreement: 1150 security prisoners, including terrorists with blood on their hands, were exchanged for 3 Israeli prisoners. Most of them, as almost all the security bodies concur today, constituted the backbone of the leadership for the first intifada that erupted three years later. Almost half of them returned to engage in terror and to murder dozens of Israelis at their own hands.
Tannenbaum Agreement: Tannenbaum, without going into too much details, was captured and then released in exchange of 400 prisoners, including terrorists. Here are the statistics of the deals: On January 27, 2004, Hamas activist Musaab Hashalmun was released as part of the Tannenbaum deal. On August 31, 2004, only half a year after his release, he was involved in a simultaneous terror attack on two buses in Beersheba. Sixteen Israeli citizens were murdered and more than 100 wounded in these terror attacks. Others released in the Tannenbaum deal led to the murder of: (a) Two young girls and three men in the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv in February 2005; (b) Two sixteen year-old girls, a soldier in mandatory service and two women in the Sharon mall in Netanya in July 2005; (c) And another woman who was murdered in a terror attack in Dimona in February 2008. Overall those released in the Tannenbaum deal murdered 27 Israelis since their release in 2004.
Summary: Prisoner exchanges can be very dangerous in our situation. It is therefore incredibly unwise to pressure our leadership when it is making such delicate calculations for our national security.
The strategic perspective
There are various strategic issues which need to be considered whenever dealing with prisoner exchanges. These issues are incredibly delicate. Here are some of them:
Freeing terrorists for captured soldiers endangers lives
As we have seen from the Jibril and Tannenbaum deals, prisoners which are freed often go right back to terrorism. Therefore, whenever one frees a terrorist, he has to realize that there is a strong chance that terrorist will cause the death of another individual. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently revealed that he agreed to the terms set by Hamas for the prisoner exchange deal, only requested that the prisoners be released to Gaza or Overseas, where they would not have access to Israeli cities. Hamas refused! Why? Of course, access to Israeli cities is essential for continued terror tactics.
Freeing terrorists for captured soldiers encourages further kidnappings
The logic here is simple: If you make it worth it to kidnap Israeli soldiers, terrorists will kidnap Israeli soldiers. There is no way around this one: By bringing the value of Israeli soldiers up at every single deal, we are asking for more kidnappings. And no, I don’t mean the internal value: “Whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he had preserved a whole world”. However, when speaking of negotiating strength and national security, we must keep in mind the consequences of our actions. If we are too willing to free high level terrorists for kidnapped soldiers, we are asking for more kidnappings.
A famous story illustrates this point:
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293 c.e.), known as the Maharam, was one of the greatest of the early Jewish codifiers. At the age of seventy he was taken captive and placed in the Ensisheim prison in Alsace, France. Emperor Rudolf I proceeded to demand an exorbitant sum for his release.
In order to understand the full significance of this act it is important to realize that almost all of the rabbis and leaders of the Jewish communities in that generation were the Maharam’s students. Even the great rabbis of the generation that followed were greatly influenced by the teachings of the Maharam. The most famous of his students was Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, known as the Rosh, whose rulings are cited extensively in Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Arukh. Because the Maharam was such an important a figure, Emperor Rudolf I hoped to extort a huge ransom from the Jewish community. Indeed, the emperor’s evil scheme nearly succeeded. The Maharam’s students and admirers were prepared to raise the sum necessary to free their master. They felt that though the law forbids paying more for a captive than the accustomed amount, when the captive at hand is the leading Torah scholar of the generation, and the entire community is in need of him and his Torah wisdom, it is permissible to pay any fee.
But the renowned Maharam would not permit it to be paid, for he understood that such an act would only encourage the enemies of Israel to imprison other rabbis in the future and demand huge sums for their release. As a result, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg spent the final seven years of his life in the Ensisheim prison — and it was there that he died.
By virtue of his greatness of spirit and his self-sacrifice for the sake of the general good, the Maharam succeeded in preventing a dam from breaking open: He saved the Torah leaders of future generations from captivity, and the Jewish community from gigantic expenses which may well have caused their complete financial ruin.
Freed terrorists constitute the backbone of future terror waves
Israel has managed to secure a delicate status quo where there is no immediate major security threat from the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. As we have seen from the Jibril agreement, releasing experiences terrorists in such an environment is sure to tip the delicate balance we have create and create more bloodshed for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Regionally, we do not want to strengthen Hamas-type regimes
One under-stated reason for caution in prisoner exchange deals is the delicate balance of power within the Arab world in the region. Regional politics oppose Islamic regimes and other extremist Bathist regimes with the more moderate Egyptian and Jordanian-type regimes. While we cannot competely celebrate our ties with either side of this internal Arab ideological battle, it is clear that Egyptian and Jordanian-types of regimes are much friendlier to Israel than the terrorist supporting Iranian and Syrian regimes. By strengthening Hamas, an organization supported by Iran and Syria, we are weakening Egypt and Jordan in the region, and this is bad strategically.
Pressuring the Israeli government reduces the chances of a deal with Hamas
Hamas will not agree to any deal as long as it believes it can get more from Israel. As long as people keep vocally and publically protesting the government to give more irrational concessions, Hamas will keep Gilad locked up without human rights waiting for the government to concede more. If we want Hamas to free Gilad, we have to make them clearly understand that they will not get any better deal than what we currently offer them.
The moral perspective
Many people make moral arguments stating that Israel should give anything to save the precious life of its soldiers. It’s true, the lives of Israeli soldiers is incredibly precious. Nothing in this world is more precious. However, there are also other moral variables that need to be considered.
Gilad Shalit’s life is precious – but the lives of victims of terrorism are also precious
Only in a world as tough as ours can such moral questions come up: Whose life is more precious? Whose blood is redder?
The Talmud establishes that one may not commit murder for self preservation. If a person is threatened that if he does not kill another person, he himself will be killed, he must allow himself to be killed. The Talmud explains that all lives have equal value, and “how do you know your blood is redder than his; maybe his blood is redder than yours”. By killing in order to save his own life, the killer has acted immorally by placing his life on a higher level than that of the victim.
However, if this is true in one direction, it must also be true in the other direction. We cannot save the life of one person if saving his life will mean risking hundreds of other lives. We have both clear experience and intelligence which points to the fact that releasing terrorists with blood on their hands will cause other deaths. Yes, Gilad’s life is invaluable. However, the lives of all the victims of terrorism are just as valuable. We cannot gamble with peoples’ lives.
In many ways, morality demands that we stand the tormenting test of patience and psychological warfare which Hamas is playing with us, while praying for the safe return of Gilad Shalit.
The motivational perspective
Soldiers should not loose motivation from this story
The final argument we will deal with states that Israel must do EVERYTHING to save its soldiers from captivity since Israel is a citizens’ army with mandatory enlistment. If enlistment is mandatory, then it is our responsibility to care for our soldiers. If we stop caring for our soldiers, they will lose all motivation in their military service. While I agree with the gist of this argument, I disagree with its full implications.
I agree that Israel must be ready to sacrifice a lot for the freedom of its soldiers. Yes, this includes dangerous military missions to save its’ kidnapped soldiers. However, it is not a reason to endanger national security. The role of Israeli soldiers is to ensure Israeli national security, at the cost of their own lives. It would be ludicrous for them to weaken it.
The life and responsibility of a soldier is tough. Ruach Tzhahal, an ethical code every soldier carried on in his wallet, describes one of the aspects of military ethics as such:
The loyalty of IDF servicemen is their dedication, in all actions, to their homeland, the State of Israel, its citizens and armed forces, and their constant readiness to fight and devote all their power, even at the risk of their own lives, in the defense of the sovereign State of Israel and the lives and the safety of its inhabitants, according to the values and orders of the IDF, while following the laws and the democratic principles of the State.
Every soldier which enlists in the IDF must take an oath in which he agreed to do everything, “even at the cost of his own life”, to protect the nation and the freedom of Israel.
Yes, every time a soldier dies, it is incredibly heart breaking and sad. I have often cried when hearing such news and it would be inhumane not to do so. However, there is no doubt in my mind that their deaths are not reasons for the IDF to stop protecting its citizens. Quite to the contrary, the very reason why they risked their lives is to protect the nation.
Gilad Shalit is in a different, yet similar, situation. In the public opinion, his case is much more gruelling since it keeps going and going and going. Yet, the sacrifices he made are necessary for the security of the State of Israel. We thank him for his service. We would do a lot to help him – even risk the lives of our soldiers in a rescue mission. However, we cannot hurt national security.
This article was probably one of the most difficult for me to write. When I walked in the streets of Jerusalem last week, seeing the thousands who joined Noam and Aviva Shlait to pressure the government to accept a deal that PM Netanyahu characterized as a real danger to national security, I almost wanted to cry. This is such a difficult situation. On the one hand, the show of solidarity is beautiful. The honesty with which thousands of people gathered in support of a fellow Israeli is amazing.
However, on the other hand, it is dangerously misguided. We must keep our nation safe. Yes, we must pray for Gilad’s safe return. Yes, we must continuously push every option which does not endanger our national security. However, we cannot cross any red line which would put us in danger. By pressuring the government to cross those red lines, you are just weakening Bibi’s negotiating power and strengthening the Hamas government, while endangering Israeli national security by encouraging more kidnappings.
Speech by PM Benjamin Netanyahu on this topic
I found PM Netanyahu’s speech on this topic incredible. It reflects my position perfectly. I am therefore including a link to the translation of the transcript: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Speeches+by+Israeli+leaders/2010/PM-Netanyahus-Remarks-at-a-Special-Press-Conference-Regarding-the-Continued-Efforts-to-Release-Kidna.htm
My name is Dan Illouz. You can read more about me by clicking on this link. I hope to use the broad and diverse knowledge I have acquired through my education and experience in order to help shape an public policy in Israel.