Australia/Israel Review

The Homecoming

Oct 31, 2011 | Amotz Asa-El

The Homecoming

Amotz Asa-El

Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, is the only Jewish holiday on which the Bible expressly commands the Jews to be happy. In Israel this Autumn, it turned out not only happy, but euphoric, as abducted Sergeant Gilad Shalit returned home after more than five years of unvisited and unlocated captivity in a Gaza basement. And yet, the national melodrama quickly gave way to a strategic hangover wrapped in moral soul searching.

The public’s enlistment for the cause of Shalit’s return has been unprecedented. A well organised media campaign, led with remarkable poise by Shalit’s parents Noam and Aviva and public relations professionals who say they worked voluntarily, turned a previously anonymous foot soldier into a virtual celebrity and a fixture of the public domain.

Having camped in a tent on a sidewalk outside the prime-ministerial residence in Jerusalem, Gilad’s parents were visited continuously by passersby and encouraged by strangers who often arrived from afar especially for that purpose. Well publicised bicycle tours, mountain hikes and public vigils hoisting posters featuring Gilad under a waving Israeli flag attracted thousands. Glaring billboard ads, ubiquitous bumper stickers, posters hanging from balconies, countless news items, events attended by assorted celebrities, from artists to athletes and weekly prayers for Gilad’s release recited in synagogues throughout Israel and the Jewish Diaspora – all these made the boyish-looking soldier everybody’s sibling and child.

Set against this backdrop, when the deal for Gilad’s release was finally announced, after repeated failed negotiations over the previous half decade, there was a national sense of catharsis. In living rooms, workplaces, and shopping malls, the Jewish state was almost fully glued to the broadcasts that preceded, accompanied, and followed the release, and when a visibly pale and frail Shalit finally emerged – thousands burst into tears.

And yet, the deal came at a price that all realise is without a precedent and many now decry as exorbitant. With 477 Palestinian prisoners released simultaneously the day Shalit returned, the first installment of what will eventually add up to 1,027, many found the price difficult to digest. Israelis of all walks were left with a bitter aftertaste following the discharge of notorious murderers like Abdel Aziz Yousef Salha, who took part in the public lynching of two Israelis in 2000, or Nasser Yathima, who participated in the Passover Seder massacre of March 2002, where 30 Israelis were killed, or Hadi a’Naim who received 16 life sentences for crashing a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus full of passengers into a ravine in 1989, or Amana Mona who seduced a teenager by email to meet her and then led him to his killers.

These were but four of 280 prisoners who carried life sentences for having either executed, planned, or assisted in perpetrating fatal terror attacks, only to now be released hardly a decade after committing their crimes and receiving their convictions.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak tried to reduce the deal’s damage by insisting on, and indeed obtaining, agreement that most of the terrorists would not return to the West Bank. Thus, 203 prisoners whose families reside in the West Bank were expelled to Gaza, Syria and Turkey, in addition to 131 original native Gazans. The 110 who were returned to the West Bank will be forbidden to leave it over the next 10 years, whether to Israel or to any other country, and will have to report once a month to the Israeli-Palestinian Coordination Administration, the agency through which Israel and the Palestinian Authority coordinate their activities in the West Bank.

Even so, the deal was attacked by pundits, ranging from Yediot Aharonot’s Ron Ben-Yishai, Israel’s most veteran military commentator, who called the deal “a surrender,” to Haaretz’s Palestinian Affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff, who agreed with security officials he quoted saying Israel had lost the ability to distinguish between friend and foe – striking a deal with Gaza’s Islamists while sidelining the more Western-oriented Palestinian Authority.

This tone was later adopted by Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni, who ordinarily swipes Netanyahu from the left, but now attacked him from the right, saying the deal strengthened Hamas and eroded Israel’s deterrence.

The deal’s disproportion was unprecedented in its ratio, but not in its substance.

First, in the aftermaths of its large-scale wars, Israel repeatedly returned to its enemies many more prisoners than it received. Then, in 1985, it released 1,150 prisoners in turn for three soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, following a protracted public campaign led by one of the released prisoners’ mothers. “I couldn’t face her anymore,” then-Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin admitted later. Eventually, many of the prisoners released in that deal played leading roles in the first Palestinian Intifada.

And yet, two more uneven deals resulting in mass prisoner releases were made last decade. First, in 2004, then-PM Ariel Sharon traded 435 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in turn for the bodies of four Israeli soldiers and one live prisoner, Col. (res.) Elhanan Tannenbaum, who had been abducted in Dubai and transferred from there to Lebanon after being coaxed into a drug deal. Then, in 2008, Ehud Olmert traded, to gain the return for the bodies of two soldiers who had been missing in action for two years, 197 bodies of Hezbollah soldiers and five live prisoners – including Samir Kuntar who back in 1979 had murdered an Israeli father and his three-year-old daughter, as well as two policemen.

The deeper context behind these concessions is the time-honoured Jewish value of prisoner redemption, a recurring quandary in Jewish life since the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and throughout the Middle Ages. The frequent imprisonment of Jews by assorted powers-that-be in order to collect ransom bred an elaborate corpus of legal precedents including a rabbinic rule that prisoners should not be redeemed for more than their worth.

The consequent conflict between emotion and reason that was a frequent feature of Jewish life before Zionism has now resurfaced in the Jewish state, pitting the duty not to abandon conscripts behind enemy lines against the duty of defending the public. “The deal is a test of maturity for Israeli society,” wrote Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger of Monash and Haifa Universities. A leading Israeli historian of ideas, she backed the deal, but argued that the public debate surrounding it was conducted in such a mature, eloquent, and civil way it crowned Israel as “the most active and communicative civil society in the world today.”

Others add that the moment of solidarity that Shalit’s release produced, bringing together Israelis of otherwise conflicted political, religious, cultural, and tribal backgrounds, carried its own strategic value, having served as a reminder that Israeli society has not lost the ability to feel, care, do, and sacrifice for its members in situations of despair.

Some also believe that the disproportionate deal actually shames Israel’s enemies, as they emerge from it feeling worth less than one-thousandth of one Israeli sergeant, while Israel demonstrated that it is not afraid to meet on the battlefield the most notorious terrorists.

Still, the Shalit deal is mostly seen, even by its supporters, as a negative turning point, both in terms of the number of terrorists released, and in terms of the relatively short time they spent in jail. No one disputes Opposition Leader Livni’s assessment that the deal will, at least in the short run, increase the motivation to kidnap more Israelis.

While some analysts believe that Netanyahu was motivated not only by circumstances, but also by a strategic quest to weaken Mahmoud Abbas following his attempt in September to ambush Israel at the UN, Netanyahu’s own Defence Minister Barak conceded the deal created potential strategic damage, which must be preemptively offset.

That is why as long ago as 2007, Barak appointed a committee headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar and tasked it with producing guidelines for future conduct in the face of kidnappings. The committee, which was told to submit its recommendations only once the Shalit saga ends, is expected to do so within weeks. One principle it is reportedly considering is that future prisoner exchanges should be made on the basis of a preset, and very low, ratio, perhaps one to one. Another may regard the terms on which negotiations commence, for instance demanding first that the Red Cross be allowed to see the prisoner, as the Geneva Convention demands. Deviating from the new guidelines would require the approval of the Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee for Intelligence.

The Shamgar guidelines, whatever they are, will pertain to governmental and perhaps legislative aspects of future hostage situations. Separately from that, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service are drawing their own lessons from the Shalit affair. To them, the most frustrating aspect of the saga was the inability to forcefully free Shalit. Reportedly, Shalit’s location was known at certain points, but intelligence information indicated the location reached them as part of an Iranian-managed scheme aimed to trap a rescue force, resulting in a large number of Israeli casualties, and perhaps more hostages.

That is why the IDF is now expected to seek to nip hostage-taking in the bud, possibly ordering combat units to storm abductors at the onset, no matter what the cost. Another principle, which may already have been implemented, is to ultimately reach anyone personally involved in abductions and kill them. According to Home Security Minister Maj. Gen. (res.) Matan Vilna’i, that is what happened to the people who kidnapped Shalit back in spring 2006 under a hail of rockets outside Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, near where the borders of Israel, Egypt, and Gaza meet. In answer to a question, Vilnai, formerly the IDF’s deputy chief of general staff, told high school students in Jerusalem regarding Shalit’s abductors: “They died in all kinds of accidents.”




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