The Gilad Shalit Dilemma
In Haifa eight years ago, Asaf Zur was returning home from school. Along the way, his fellow bus passenger, a Hamas suicide bomber, blew himself up and killed seventeen Israelis, mostly school children like 17-year-old Asaf.
The bomb belt worn by the terrorist was made by Mawaz Abu Sharach and Majdi Amro. They trained him, planned his deadly assault, and drove him to his target. For their heinous cruelty they received seventeen life sentences. Interviewed from an Israeli prison on British television for a program called "Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber," they said: "We will be released before our sentences' time; we will go back to terror because we must kill more Jews."
Sharach and Amro are among the 1,027 terrorists who will be released by Israel in return for Sgt. Gilad Shalit, 19 years old when he was abducted during a cross-border raid from Gaza more than five years ago. Held captive and incommunicado by Hamas ever since, his outside contacts have been limited to three letters, a DVD, and an audio tape -- granted only in return for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners.
Shalit's cruel confinement mobilized his family and their many supporters. Gilad's father Noam worked relentlessly to secure his son's release. Mass prayers have been held at the Western Wall. Ten thousand Israelis joined in a protest march, organized by Shalit's parents, to the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. A tent was erected nearby for family and friends to maintain vigil and to press for Gilad's return -- at any price.
Few issues galvanize Israelis, and evoke their sense of themselves as a national family, like the capture of soldiers. Gilad became "a son to all of us," whose return home would heal the deep family wound. News of his imminent release, in exchange for the Palestinian terrorists (nearly 300 of whom are convicted murderers serving life sentences), electrified the country. A substantial majority of Israelis, who have supported such disproportionate prisoner exchanges in the past, enthusiastically approve. So does Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, for whom the agreement is a "great achievement."
But not Yossi Zur, father of Asaf. He knows the history and consequences of vastly disproportionate prisoner exchanges. During the past thirty years, 7,000 Palestinian prisoners incarcerated for brutal terrorist actions have been released in exchanges for 19 Israelis (and 8 bodies). Since 2002, 182 Israelis have been killed by the released terrorists. Based on these numbers, dozens of Israelis are likely to die at the hands of prisoners who will be exchanged for Gilad Shalit.
Why now, after five years? Egyptian military rulers, who brokered the Shalit exchange, may have wished to strengthen relations with Hamas to please the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas can use the deal to weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose pursuit of UN recognition Hamas opposes. And Prime Minister Netanyahu will surely bask in public approval for bringing Gilad Shalit home -- when he is not castigated for surrendering to terrorists.
The Israeli conundrum cuts deeply. To Security Agency Chief Yoram Cohen, this is "the best deal for Israel from a security perspective." But he conceded that strengthening Hamas could "increase motivation for more attacks and kidnappings." Despite good reasons for opposing the deal, claimed Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, there is "one decisive reason" to support it: Shalit has become "a symbol of mutual solidarity" for Israelis; "without this feeling, there is no meaning to our lives here.".
To those on the Israeli right, however, it is a "disgraceful surrender." The Netanyahu government was denounced for betraying Israelis whose family members were killed by the released terrorists. A number of those families filed emergency lawsuits to stop the release. Soldiers in elite counter-terrorist units who had risked their lives to capture the murderers also protested.
A decade ago fifteen-year-old Malka Chana Roth was one of fifteen Israelis murdered in a horrific Palestinian terrorist bombing in the Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem. The suicide bomber was escorted to the restaurant by Ahlam Tamimi, a 20-year-old university student who was disguised as a Jewish tourist. Sentenced to 16 life sentences, she said, "I'm not sorry for what I did. I will get out of prison and I refuse to recognize Israel's existence." Ahlam Tamimi was prescient: she is on the list of prisoners to be exchanged for Shalit.
When Frimet Roth, Malka's mother, heard the news she responded: Tamimi has been "handed a life to live - the life of a hero, an inspiration. And the government that prosecuted this monstrous woman has agreed to the satanic transaction."
It is difficult to imagine that Israeli solidarity can be forged from Noam Shalit's joy and the bitter sorrow of Yossi Zur, Frimet Roth, and the families of hundreds of other innocent victims whose Palestinian murderers will be free to murder again.
According to President Shimon Peres, the Shalit exchange demonstrates that the Jewish state has fulfilled its "top moral value - to save one soul in Israel." But to save one soul by virtually assuring the deaths of others is, at least, morally questionable. The imprisoned 13th century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg refused the huge ransom of 23,000 silver marks raised by his loyal followers lest it encourage the incarceration of other rabbis. He died in prison seven years later.
As Yossi Zur realized, "since the names and faces of the future victims are not known, it is permissible to ignore all signs and past experience, and fantasize that nothing will happen." For Israelis, sadly, history suggests otherwise.
Jerold S. Auerbach, author of Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011), blogs at www.jacobsvoice.tumblr.com.