Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gilad Shalit and Israeli-Arab Prisoner Exchanges

To many Americans, the name Gilad Shalit rings no bells. However, I think it’s fair to say that to Israelis, Shalit has become as important as we Americans viewed the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979.

In June 2006, Shalit was a 19-year-old soldier serving in the Israeli army. He was stationed on the border with Gaza. Members of Hamas tunneled under the border and attacked an Israeli army post. Several Israeli soldiers and Hamas terrorists were killed. And Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas and taken back to Gaza through the tunnel.

During his years of captivity, Hamas has refused to allow the Red Cross or other humanitarian agencies to see Shalit to check on his health or to allow him humanitarian communication with his family (as required by international law). In fact, since being kidnapped, the only contact between Shalit and the outside world has been three letters, an audio tape, and a DVD that Israel received on in 2010 in return for releasing 20 female Palestinian prisoners (more on that in a moment).

In the years since Shalit was kidnapped, Israel has worked hard to reach some kind of agreement for his release. Mediators from international organizations and Egypt have been involved, but to no avail. Until now.

Yesterday, Israel announced, and Hamas confirmed, that working through an Egyptian mediator, Israel and Hamas had agreed upon a prisoner exchange. Hamas will release Gilad Shalit … and Israel will release approximately 1,047 Palestinians convicted of terrorism or other crimes.

And therein lies the point that I want to discuss. Just think about it for a moment: Israel is willing to release 1,047 people convicted of terrorism or other crimes in exchange for 1 soldier. When I think about that deal, it makes me wonder about the valuation of life made by the two societies. To Israel, it is worth the life of a single soldier to free over a thousand convicted terrorists and criminals. Would you make that trade? Would you make that trade if the soldier was your child? But then look at it from the Palestinian perspective. How valuable are the lives of any one of those Palestinian prisoners? Obviously 10 of them aren’t worth enough to trade for Shalit. Nor are 100 or 500 or even 1,000. Nope. It took 1,047 prisoners to “equal” the worth of Gilad Shalit. Moreover, it’s not just run-of-the-mill Palestinians who accidentally ran afoul of Israeli law who are to be released; rather, those on the list include Palestinians who planned or carried out actual acts of terrorism that killed Israelis. Apparently Israel did refuse to allow two terrorist “superstars” that Hamas has been demanding.

You know, Israel could have said to the Palestinians that Israel would stop treating Palestinians in Israeli hospitals until Shalit was released. Israel could have said that Palestinians wouldn’t have access to Muslim holy sites in Israel or the West Bank until Shalit was released. Israel could have withheld funding from the Palestinian Authority until Shalit was released. Israel could have refused to allow the Red Cross or humanitarian agencies to have access to Palestinians in Israeli jails until Shalit was released. But Israel didn’t do any of that. Israel did threaten to stop jailed Palestinians from being able to continue work on college degrees from within prison.

Oh, and Israel never said that it wouldn’t keep trying to negotiate peace until Shalit was released; by contrast, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate until Israel stops additional construction of “settlements” (for more on this issue see Are Israeli Settlements Really Such a Problem? A Primer and Palestinian Statehood).

What is fascinating about this trade is that it isn’t the first time that Israel has made a trade this seemingly lopsided. Recall earlier that Israel was willing to release 20 female Palestinian prisoners, not for Shalit, but for a DVD showing Shalit. And to think that people complain about the prices that Netflix charges for a DVD…

In 1969, Israel participated in a multi-party exchange that saw Israel release 52 POWs to Syria and the UAR in exchange for 2 Israelis by Egypt.

In the early 1990s, Israel offered to pay Iran $10 billion and help Iran negotiate with the United States. What did Israel want in return? Israel wanted information about Israeli air force pilot Ron Arad who was captured by Hezbollah. $10 billion for information. Oh, and did I mention that it was presumed that Arad was already dead?

Later, in 2008, Israel released Samir Kuntar, 4 Hezbollah militants, and 200 Lebanese and Palestinian POWs in exchange for the bodies of 2 Israeli soldiers. Previously, Israel was going to release Kuntar for “concrete proof” from Hezbollah as to Ron Arad’s fate, but that deal apparently fell part. And if the name Samir Kuntar doesn’t mean anything to you:

Samir Kuntar … is a Lebanese Druze convicted murderer and former member of the Palestine Liberation Front. On April 22, 1979, at the age of 16, he participated in the attempted kidnapping of an Israeli family in Nahariya that resulted in the deaths of four Israelis and two of his fellow kidnappers. Kuntar was convicted in an Israeli court for murder of an Israeli policeman, Eliyahu Shahar, 31 year-old Danny Haran, and Haran's 4-year-old daughter, Einat Haran, whom he killed with blunt force against a rock. He was also convicted of indirectly causing the death of two-year-old Yael Haran by suffocation, as her mother, Smadar, tried to quiet her crying while hiding from Kuntar. In 1980 Kuntar was sentenced to four life sentences. [¶] Immediately after his arrest, Kuntar admitted to the killings, but at his sentence and thereafter he denied killing the father and daughter, saying that they had been killed by security forces in the ensuing gun battle. He did admit to taking them hostage and killing Eliyahu Shahar, however.

(Footnotes and hyperlinks omitted.) So, the man convicted of what many Israelis regard as one of the most brutal terror attacks ever (in case the Wikipedia article wasn’t clear, Kuntar killed the 4-year-old girl by repeatedly smashing her skull against a rock), was released for the bodies of 2 Israeli soldiers.

The earlier failed exchange that would have released Kuntar did result in the release of 30 Lebanese POWs, the remains of 59 Lebanese, and 400 Palestinians in exchange for an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah and the remains of 3 Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid.

In all, over the last 30 years, Israel has released about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure freedom for 19 Israelis and the bodies of 8 others.

7,000 for 19 (plus 8 bodies). When we add in the Shalit exchange, it will be about 8,000 for 20. I’ll let you do the math.

So why is Israel willing to give up so much for the return of a single Israeli or even the body of a single Israeli or information about a single Israeli? And why do the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt demand so many prisoners before they will release that single Israeli or that single body or that nugget of information?

I could speculate on answers, but I don’t think I will. At least not here and not now. But I will say that the efforts and sacrifices that Israel has shown it is willing to make for the return of Israelis tells me much about the value placed upon the lives of Israelis by the Israeli government and the Israeli public.

But perhaps this video, and in particular, the last words of the Hamas spokesman, may offer some insight:

When Gilad Shalit returns to Israel, perhaps in the next day or so, there will be jubilant celebration in Israel. But that jubilation comes at a very expensive — and dangerous — price.

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