Today Israel released the first few hundred of what will eventually be 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Those are astonishing numbers. Can you imagine an American president releasing 1,000 convicted terrorists to save one soldier? Can you imagine what Fox News would do to her or him? Heck, most American politicians are too terrified of looking soft on crime to divert even a single drug user from jail to treatment. (Unless the drug user’s father was a major campaign contributor, of course.)
I’d like to think that Netanyahu’s decision to okay the prisoner exchange was a testament to the the teaching from the Talmud that “whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world.” And maybe it was, indirectly.
But directly it was more of a testament to the nature of the Israeli civilian military — where everyone serves for three years after high school, and most continue to be called up for reserve duty each year through their adult lives. Every Israeli family has an 18-year-old in uniform at some point; every family has a son or daughter who could be Gilad Shalit.
But still, what a tough call. As much as I typically disagree with Netanyahu, I would not have wanted to be in his shoes facing this decision. Many of those 1,300 Palestinians were responsible for the deaths of civilians in terror attacks. Some will likely attempt such attacks again. Imagine being prime minister when, six months from now, an aide runs in to your office and says that a Jerusalem cafe has been blown up by someone you released.
Writer Yossi Klein Halevi beautifully articulated the ambivalence of many Israelis about the deal in an essay in Tablet magazine:
For the last five years I have tried not to think of Gilad Shalit. I avoided the newspaper photographs of his first months as an Israel Defense Forces draftee, a boy playing soldier in an ill-fitting uniform. Sometimes, despite myself, I’d imagine him in a Gaza cellar, bound, perhaps wired with explosives to thwart a rescue attempt. And then I would force myself to turn away.
I tried not to think of Gilad because I felt guilty. Not only was I doing nothing to help the campaign to free him, I opposed its implicit demand that the Israeli government release as many terrorists as it takes to bring him home. Israel has no death penalty, and now we would lose the deterrence of prison: If the deal went through, any potential terrorist would know it was just a matter of time before he’d be freed in the next deal for the next kidnapped Israeli.
But the argument could never be so neatly resolved. Each side was affirming a profound Jewish value: ransom the kidnapped, resist blackmail. And so any position one took was undermined by angst. What would you do, campaign activists challenged opponents, if he were your son? “He’s everyone’s son,” sang rocker Aviv Gefen.
So today he was released after more than five years. No photographs released during all that time. No visits permitted from the Red Cross or any international humanitarian groups. I had imagined the worst, and was happy to see that Shalit appears to be physically in one piece. Emotionally, of course, who knows what scars he’ll carry? And of course many of the Palestinians released will have emotional scars from prison too.
When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-85, I had friends in both the Palestinian and Israeli communities. I will always remember one instance when Israel released a large number of Palestinian prisoners — a searing illustration of how two completely different realities exist side by side there. In West Jerusalem, the mood was one of grim resignation: The government was releasing murderers. In East Jerusalem, people were exuberant: This person’s cousin was coming home! That person’s nephew was coming home!
I have great sympathy for the Palestinian people, even sympathy for Fatah, but I have none for Hamas, with its vision of an Islamic, fundamentalist, misogynistic and Jew-free region.
Here’s what Shalit was quoted by the New York Times as saying upon his release: “I very much hope that this deal will advance peace.”
Here’s what Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, was quoted by the Times as saying on Oct. 11 about the deal: That the next steps would be to “cleanse the land, and liberate Jerusalem, and unite the Palestinian ranks.”