Finally Gilad Shalit, who became known in Israel as ‘everyone’s son’, has returned home. His liberation led to what can only be called a sense of national euphoria across the Jewish state.
The costs to gain his release after five years of captivity were, objectively, enormous. Among the 1,027 prisoners freed were those estimated to have the blood of 599 people, mostly civilians, on their hands. They include the masterminds of some of the most horrific terror bombings in Israeli history.
Aside from the horror these releases represent to the families and friends of the victims – and Israel is a small place, where everyone knows someone who has been affected by terrorism – the potential strategic downsides are considerable indeed. To mention just some of the concerns raised about the prisoner releases: Many freed terrorists will likely return to attacking Israel; it will encourage additional efforts to kidnap Israelis; it will send a message to Palestinians that terrorism and violence work; it will be a boost for the rejectionist Hamas at the expense of the more moderate Palestinian Authority; and it will weaken Israel’s ability to deter terrorism, with potential violent militants convinced that even if they are caught, they will ultimately be released in a future prisoner swap.
Hamas has boasted that the prisoners released will return to armed conflict, and Palestinians that gathered in celebration chanted “The people want a new Gilad Shalit!”
Some Israeli pundits and many strategic experts sympathetic to Israel have argued that, viewed logically and dispassionately, the deal for Shalit appears to make no sense. Yet Israelis and their leaders seriously and soberly considered all angles in detail and went ahead and redeemed Shalit anyway.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any other country in the world, even including Australia, making a similar deal for a single soldier or kidnap victim, or allowing his plight to become so central to national life. For instance, Australian journalist Nigel Brennan, kidnapped in 2008, and Australian contractor Douglas Woods, held hostage for 47 days in 2005, never received a fraction of the national attention accorded Gilad Shalit in Israel. It is impossible to imagine Australia’s government paying anything like the strategic price Israel did for Shalit in either case.
This is not a criticism or denigration of these individuals or Australia. The same can be said for almost any country in the world – except Israel. Israel is the exception. Why? Because Israel is an extraordinary society.
There is a closeness in tiny Israel, a feeling that the whole country is almost like one big family – which is simply not ordinary. Almost any two Israelis can find someone they know in common – a relative who lives in the same town, a friend from university, a mate from the army. The constant security threats also help bond Israelis as well. There are endless heated debates and political dramas and yes, deep divisions, but also a sense of belonging, together, to something special.
This helps explain what appears to be a puzzling fact. As everyone knows, Israel faces relentless security problems and terrorism, requiring most Israelis to serve in the military, not only after high school, but for males, for many years of their lives in the reserves.
Israel has been repeatedly subject to campaigns of both suicide bombings on civilian buses, cafes and shopping centres, and indiscriminate barrages of rocket attacks on civilian towns and cities. It is unique among the world’s states in being routinely delegimitised, its right to exist questioned. Neighbours openly call for its extinction, including one soon likely to be nuclear-armed. It sadly still appears far from achieving normal, peaceful relations with neighbouring states.
And yet, despite all this, surveys consistently show that Israelis are among the most contented people in the world. In a Gallup study of global wellbeing published in April, Israel was rated seventh in the world in happiness, with 63% of Israelis happy with their lives. This is just behind Australia, but ahead of many developed countries and tied with New Zealand. Moreover, if one looks at the aggregate over the past five years, remarkably, Israel actually averages a slightly higher ranking than Australia!
Furthermore a survey conducted in September found no less than 88% of Israelis felt that Israel is a good place to live. And this is despite all the wars, terrorism, delegitimisation, threats, and general stress.
When researchers have attempted to probe deeper into why Israelis remain so happy, it comes down to factors like those that led Israelis to be ready to make the difficult decision to give so much for the life of Gilad Shalit. Things like a good family life, a sense of place and belonging in a small country where everyone is connected. Above all, a strong sense of community and, despite the constant argument, political rancour and divisions, an underlying solidarity, especially when the chips are down.
Some of these same factors help explain Israel’s extraordinary “start up nation” accomplishments in science, agriculture, irrigation, pharmaceuticals and high-tech, which are completely disproportionate to its population.
And of course, Israel’s willingness to make such an unfair and painful deal speaks volumes about not only its commitment to its soldiers but the value it places on human life – in stark contrast to the terrorists who seek to kill and maim indiscriminately.
Importantly, one final lesson should be drawn from this whole Shalit saga. Both Israeli public opinion and the current political leaders were willing to make massive, painful concessions and difficult decisions to save one life. No one should doubt that if a real peace deal ending the conflict with the Palestinians, or for that matter Syria, were clearly on the table – something likely to preserve the lives of hundreds or even thousands of future young soldiers like Gilad Shalit – even more painful and difficult concessions would be forthcoming from the Israeli side!