Against Prisoner Exchanges, Pt. 2

Palestinians partake in a massive welcoming ceremony for released murderers and other criminals, organized by Hamas in Gaza. (Associated Press)
Palestinians partake in a massive welcoming ceremony for released murderers and other criminals, organized by Hamas in Gaza. (Associated Press)

Two weeks ago, I took a retrospective look at the almost year-old prisoner exchange that finally freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after six years in captivity. I did my best to debunk the conventional case in favour of the deal, demonstrating its cruelty to the relatives of other terror victims, its inconsistency with traditional Jewish ethics, and its desultory impact on IDF morale.

In this second installment, I will state my own case against the Shalit deal and any future prisoner exchanges. This sordid episode undermined the Jewish State’s policy of deterrence, rewarded our adversaries’ worst tendencies, and even undermined Israel’s legitimacy as a fully sovereign state.

The first weakness of the prisoner exchange is so obvious that even some of its proponents have miraculously noticed it: Hamas, along with other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaeda elements hiding in the Sinai, and even disaffected Israeli-Arab cells will doubtless attempt more and more kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and civilians, armed with the knowledge that its short-sighted leaders are willing to “sell the farm” in order to bring just one prisoner home.

Even before Gilad’s release, Hamas leaders made this logical connection, ominously threatening to kidnap a female Israeli soldier in order to furnish Shalit with a “bride”, perhaps in a sickening ode to the custom of bride abductions once practiced among Arabs and still occasionally attested in Central Asia. Terror attacks along the Egyptian-Israeli border during August both this year and last year may also have aimed to capture additional Israeli and hold them for ransom, while simultaneously instigating an Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic crisis.

By releasing thousands of convicted criminals and terrorists in exchange for Shalit’s freedom, the Jewish State set a precedent that its enemies will be eager to exploit.

Moreover, the Shalit prisoner exchange also put another nail into the coffin of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Israeli-Arab coexistence generally.

This argument can take two forms. On a more superficial level, pundits quickly accused Israel of strengthening the radically Islamist and staunchly Antisemitic Hamas movement at the expense of Fatah, its secularist and more “moderate” rival. Some even wondered whether Prime Minister Netanyahu had engaged in a Machiavellian display of realpolitik, intentionally undermining Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in order to weaken his position at the negotiating table with Israel or in the halls of the United Nations.

But in truth, this explanation is too simplistic to do justice to the folly of the prisoner exchange and its impact on the domestic Palestinian arena. Hamas and Fatah are not monolithic entities; both contain their fair share of inveterate Antisemites and veterans of terror. Real Palestinian moderates, such as embattled Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, usually belong to no formal political party. Furthermore, we must not forget the often-ignored smaller parties such as the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which still play a role in violent and non-violent Palestinian political discourse.

Across party lines, the Shalit deal strengthened hawks such as Fatah central committee member Abbas Zaki, and hamstrung moderates like Fayyad. It told Palestinians that violence, not dialogue, will win them concessions. It showed them that bullets, not bulletins, are the best way to achieve their aims.

Were Palestinians grateful toward Israel for releasing 1,027 prisoners?

By and large, they were not. Egged on by noted Israel-hater Richard Falk, Palestinian human rights groups had the chutzpah to denounce the exchange as “a violation of international law” due to Israeli demands that some of the most dangerous terrorists be deported to Qatar, the UAE, Turkey and elsewhere to distance them from the Jewish State’s borders.

The exchange also played into the hands of official Palestinian propaganda, which insists on glorifying mass murderers rotting in Israeli jails and creating cults of heroism around them. Abbas and his government should be condemned for this and other outrages – instead, Israel essentially justified their adoration of terrorists by releasing them before their sentences could be completed.

Now, the next generation of Palestinian suicide bombers, not peacemakers, will be raised on stories of Ahlam Tamimi, who directly facilitated the cold-blooded murder of 15 Israeli civilians in August 2001. The fainthearted among them will learn that if they suffer the indignity of capture while waging glorious jihad, they too will be released to a hero’s welcome. And there are literally hundreds of Ahlam Tamimi’s who were released – she is merely the most vocal of them.

Even considered in less emotional, coldly mathematical terms, the Shalit deal was an awful mistake. “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved the entire world,” thunders the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:1). On this basis, one might think that the release of hundreds of murderers in exchange for Shalit was indeed morally justified, since it saved one precious life.

But in addition to Tamimi’s decision to use her new lease on life to encourage more terrorism, some released prisoners have already chosen to return to what they know best: killing innocent people. Two such miscreants were apprehended again by the Shin Bet in April – and who knows how many more have returned to violence surreptitiously?

As soon as one innocent Israeli or Palestinian is killed by a released prisoner, a “balance of lives” will have been reached. And when, inevitably, two civilians die at the hands of these uncaged criminals, Netanyahu, Barak and all the rest will not merely have stained their hands with the blood of the people they were elected to protect – they will have “destroyed the world entire”.

At the end of the day, the rot exposed by the Shalit affair is not limited to individual politicians, whom Israelis have long regarded with suspicion and a fair dose of cynicism. Rather, this disaster critically harmed the position of Israel as a sovereign state, governed by the rule of law. As a Zionist, I will freely admit that my faith in the Jewish State has never been more severely shaken than it was on that dreadful day when the details of the prisoner swap were leaked.

To Herzl and other early Zionists, the goal of Zionism was to build a country for the Jewish people in its ancient homeland, “a state like any other”. Thankfully, the intervening years have shown that Israel will never be a state like all the others; it will always have its own crises, its own triumphs, its own idiosyncrasies.

Nevertheless, there is one primal duty of statehood that the Jewish State must fulfill like other nations, or risk losing its sovereignty: the duty to dispense justice throughout the land, to vindicate the righteous and punish the evildoer (Deuteronomy 25:1). A state that can not protect its citizens from foreign armies is unfortunate; a state that fails to safeguard its citizens from domestic criminals is doomed.

When the State of Israel arrested, tried and imprisoned Mona Jauna Awana for luring an Israeli teenager to a sexual rendezvous where he was brutally executed, it was fulfilling its basic duty to its citizens, who pay taxes and serve in the military on behalf of a government pledged to their safety and to basic principles of justice and retribution. By prematurely releasing Awana as part of the Shalit swap, the Jewish State violated its social contract with its citizens.

One such ill-advised release in a time of crisis may temporarily erode citizens’ collective faith in their government. Doing so 1,027 times within one month creates a critical mass of national irresponsibility that can not be ignored.

When it comes to crime and punishment, Israel is a failed state. A country constantly forced to defend its very “right to exist” can not afford to further undermine its legitimacy by shirking its most basic duties toward its brave inhabitants.

Clearly, the prisoner exchange that freed Gilad Shalit exacted a heavy strategic, political and moral price from Israel. So what can be done to avoid facing such a predicament in the future? What should Israel do if (G-d forbid) another kidnapping occurs?

These are questions for another article, perhaps. For now, let us all pray for a happy and healthy Jewish year 5773, free of turmoil, heartache and grief for all. Shanah tovah.

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.