Against Prisoner Exchanges, Pt. 1

Corporal Gilad Shalit salutes Prime Minister Netanyahu, shortly after his release from captivity last October (Associated Press).
Corporal Gilad Shalit salutes Prime Minister Netanyahu, shortly after his release from captivity last October (Associated Press).

Almost a year has passed since abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was finally released by his Hamas captors, in exchange for 1,027 convicted criminals in Israeli jails, mostly Palestinian in origin. Yesterday, readers of The Times of Israel were reminded of Shalit’s first birthday in freedom since 2005; soon, we will surely be bombarded with news of his first High Holy Days at home in many years.

And then, on October 18th, the day for which we have all been waiting: the anniversary of Gilad’s return. Thousands of Israelis and Jews worldwide remained glued to their TV sets on that day, as the emaciated soldier embraced Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Kerem Shalom crossing, after enduring an exploitative interview for Egyptian television.

Corporal Gilad Shalit salutes Prime Minister Netanyahu, shortly after his release from captivity last October (Associated Press).

Many cried tears of unadulterated joy on that day. But for me, there was nothing but tears of anguish and betrayal. I was sure then, and remain convinced now, that the prisoner exchange that freed Gilad Shalit was morally repugnant and pragmatically inept, and represented one of the most severe failures of leadership in Israeli history.

Now that the emotions have largely subsided, I will use the rest of this article to engage in a point-by-point refutation of the conventional case in favour of the deal. Next week, I will illustrate the serious harm that it has inflicted upon Israeli legitimacy, peacemaking efforts and strategic deterrence, while also responding to any criticism stemming from this piece.

For starters, let me make one thing clear: We can not condemn the actions of the Shalit family, who waged a tireless and ultimately successful public campaign to earn their son’s release. Any parent would have done the same, and no pundit or commentator can ever understand the pain that they must have experienced on a daily basis as long as Gilad sat caged like a dog in Gaza.

However, by the same token, we must appreciate the bitterness and rage of the relatives of other terror victims, whose murderers were prematurely released as part of the exchange. How cruel it must be, to the see the person who brutally butchered your loved one returned to their family in Jericho or Hebron or Gaza, fêted with song and dance and candies, while the innocent victim stays buried in the earth! So deep was their pain, that some relatives mounted a futile attempt to block the prisoner swap via the Supreme Court of Israel. Clearly, the joy and relief that the prisoner exchange brought to the Shalit family is no justification for the operation, as it also inflicted unconscionable suffering upon other victims of Palestinian terror.

Next, supporters of the Shalit deal appeal to one of the third rails of Israeli politics: “Jewish ethics”. Hoary Jewish tradition, they tell us, places paramount value on the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, or freeing Jewish captives from unlawful imprisonment. The Rambam, one of the greatest rabbis of all time, found no less than five scriptural sources for this commandment. The Shulchan Aruch, perhaps the most influential work of halachah, thunders, “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder”.

Nevertheless, as a practical matter, pidyon shvuyim has always had its limits. In 1286, the prominent German sage Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg attempted to make aliyah after Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I initiated new anti-Semitic laws. Sadly, he was captured and jailed before he could escape Europe. Jewish community leaders raised a massive ransom of 30,000 silver marks, and the Emperor was willing to accept this bribe in return for the rabbi’s release.

Rabbi Meir rejected this chance for freedom, and chose to perish in prison. Unlike modern Israeli leaders, he correctly reasoned that the ransom was disproportionate to his value to the community, and would moreover encourage similar hostage-takings in the future.

Of course, we can not know whether Gilad Shalt would have balked at the steep price of his own release, since his Hamas kidnappers refused him access to even the Red Cross, in violation of international law. But consider this – if traditional Jewish practice discourages the payment of immense monetary sums in exchange for one prisoner, then it must surely forbid the release of hundreds of cold-blooded killers, their hands red with Jewish blood!

Another pro-swap contention rests on the interpretation of IDF doctrines and ethos. Proponents of the prisoner exchange claim that Tzahal has always followed and ought to follow the maxim of “no man/woman left behind”, doing everything within its power to bring each and every soldier home safely.

In truth, this stubborn insistence on freeing every prisoner is grounded in recent practice, but not in IDF doctrine. The military’s official code of ethics repeatedly emphasizes its goal – “to defend the existence of the State of Israel, its independence and the security of the citizens and residents of the state”. It further notes that “IDF servicemen and women will act out of fraternity and devotion to their comrades, and will always go to their assistance when they need their help or depend on them, despite any danger or difficulty, even to the point of risking their lives”.

We should observe that soldiers are abjured to risk their own lives in order to save their comrades, i.e. by participating in an armed rescue mission. However, nowhere in this document is it recommended that the lives of Israeli civilians be put at risk, as they certainly are when dangerous terrorists are released into the world. Thus, the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap can not be justified on a technicality: namely, that Israel was required to go through with it in order to fulfill its own military promises.

The most compelling argument in favour of the almost year-old prisoner exchange debacle takes the form of a simple moral plea, best articulated by Bradley Burston for Ha’aretz. Since the IDF is composed largely of draftees, rather than volunteers, some insist that the State of Israel owes its defenders this “reward”: a pledge never to abandon them behind enemy lines, no matter the cost.

After all, how can a Jewish mother send her daughter or son into harm’s way without reassurances that every avenue will be exhausted in order to secure their safe return? And how can a reluctantly drafted recruit put his or her life on the line for Israel if he or she fears that the Jewish State might abandon them in their time of need?

This simple question goes straight to the heart of civil-military relations. Is the IDF a body dedicated to safeguarding the Jewish State from its enemies, or is it something more? Should politicians condemn captured soldiers to their fate, or should it endanger civilians in order to ensure their release?

Does the army serve the state, or does the state serve the army?

As we survey the region and see the chaos and instability caused by military ascendancy, military selfishness and military rule in countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq, we must be sure to place the needs of civilians before the needs of service members, even in their greatest distress. Israel can not afford to be, like Frederick the Great’s Prussia, “an army with a state”.

The IDF, like the Haganah before it, was established to protect Israeli civilians, and not the other way around. Soldiers, whether draftees or volunteers, must sacrifice their lives for the nation because it is their duty to do so, and the state owes them nothing in return (save for their normal political and civil rights). The steady erosion of this culture of selflessness is a worrying sign for Israeli society, and should be stamped out, not encouraged.

Some will argue that any failure to redeem military captives will cause irreparable harm to morale, as soldiers refuse to participate in high-risk missions in case of capture by the enemy and torture, or worse.

But this line of argument cuts both ways. If the Jewish State continues its disturbing habit of releasing murderers and terrorists for purely political ends, soldiers in commando and combat units, those at the heart of modern IDF tactics, will wonder why they are risking their lives to capture Palestinian miscreants, if they might be released shortly thereafter despite the obvious security threats. Hostage-takings like that of Corporal Shalit are always bad for army morale, regardless of how the government chooses to manage the crisis.

Stay tuned for next week, as I detail the massive moral and political setback entailed for Israel in the Shalit prisoner exchange, and make a few suggestions to avoid future disasters.

About the Author
Aidan Fishman is a student of International Relations and Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto. Born and raised in Winnipeg, he seeks to inject a touch of Canadian civility into Israeli and Jewish discourse, while still maintaining a debater's ear for sound logic and an enthusiast's eye for stories and solutions hidden beneath the headlines.