‘Everybody is right,” my Israeli friend Herb Aber said when we met for dinner the other night. He was responding to my question about his opinion of the Gilad Shalit saga, and he gave a good answer. Everybody was right: the persistent parents who kept their boy’s imprisonment in the public eye for five years; the prime minister who grabbed a tiny window of opportunity to negotiate a deal for his release; the Israeli people who tearfully welcomed the young soldier home with the intensity of emotion that had made him “everybody’s son.” They were all right. Israel had lived up to its unwritten contract with members of its armed forces to do everything in its power to bring them home should they be captured or wounded.
They were right, and so were the people who objected to the lopsided swap that, in exchange for one soldier, freed 1,027 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, many of them responsible for major terror attacks. The families of the victims of terrorism who opposed the deal were right as were the dozens of pundits who warned of the dangers to Israel in this imbalanced exchange.
They were all right, because there is no single right answer to this “lady or tiger” choice in Israeli life. Did Israel open the correct door in freeing sweet-faced young Shalit, or will we yet hear the vicious roar of increased terrorism resounding behind him because of this deal?
No one knows the answer, and because of that millions of words have been spoken and written to speculate on every possible result of the swap. So I will venture a few more words, on an aspect of the deal that has not been much explored. That is, the message it conveyed to Palestinians about themselves. To be sure, for many it was a message of victory that fills them with joy and bravado. The Israelis have an Achilles heel, they say. The Jews value life so much that they will trade one of theirs for thousands of ours. Let’s kidnap more soldiers, some suggest, and thus free all our prisoners. A Saudi royal offers a $900,000 reward for the capture of an Israeli soldier, and in Gaza mobs shout, “Get another Shalit!”
But there is also a different message that has been sent, and thinking Palestinians have heard it. That message is that in the marketplace today 1,000 Palestinian prisoners equal just one Jewish captive. It’s a dreadful equation. It implies that a Palestinian prisoners’ life is cheap compared to that of a Jewish one. If the Jews are willing to give up that many prisoners just to get one of theirs back, what must they — and the world — think of that mass of prisoners?
Yet the Jews did not devalue Arab life. The Arabs did that to themselves. Wafa al-Biss, a Palestinian woman and would-be suicide bomber, was caught before she could detonate the explosives she had sewn into her undergarments, jailed for 12 years, and then released in the prisoner exchange. The day after her release she spoke at a school in Gaza. “God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs,” she said to the cheering schoolchildren. With her society desperate for education and productivity, the only goals she could think to give young people were suicide and martyrdom. In a culture of death, life becomes cheap.
Some freed Palestinians understood the underlying message of the asymmetrical prisoner tradeoff. After the Egyptian television interview with a pale, malnourished Shalit — an interview many of us found obscene in its inappropriateness — several released Palestinian prisoners were angry that he had been singled out by the Egyptians for attention while they were regarded as a herd, one individual indistinguishable from the next. And, in a New York Times profile, a former prisoner, Mohammed Musa Taqatqa, spoke of having changed from the young man jailed for murder and other terror activities 18 years ago. He knows what Israelis think of him, he said. He knows they see him and the other prisoners as nothing more than terrorists. He hopes that view might change one day, and that the struggle between the two peoples will end so that they can live as neighbors. His words seem a far cry from the standard Hamas vow to destroy Israel, an indication, perhaps, that Israel’s disdain for the terrorists may also be an effective weapon against them.
The sanctity Jews place on every human life extends in Israel from eliminating the death penalty, even for cold-blooded terrorists (which is why so many Palestinians are in Israeli prisons), to bartering a thousand prisoners to redeem one soldier. The Arabs may rejoice in the unequal equation, but on some deep level of consciousness they have to respect Israel for it, and feel humiliated by it.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”