Saturday 26 December 2009

The Other Side of the Deal

With the details of the proposed Gilad Shalit deal occupying the front pages of every Israeli newspaper during the course of this week, I am finding it difficult to avoid writing about it again. A survey published in a national newspaper revealed that more than 90% of Israelis would support the government doing a deal with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit at "any price". Those of you who have read my previous blogs on the subject will know that I fall firmly into this 90% group. It may be worthwhile, however, to keep remembering that there is another view on the deal.

The reason why so many Israelis support bringing Gilad Shalit home at any price is because we all put ourselves into the position of the Shalit family. The words attributed to John Bradford, a sixteenth century theologian, come to mind - "There, but for the grace of G-d, go I". Due to the fact that all Israeli families are obliged to send their sons and daughters to serve in the IDF, the Gilad Shalit story could happen to any of us. We all want to believe that the government would do all it can to bring our children home if we were, heaven forbid, placed in this situation.

The counter view is discussed in the press, but perhaps not given the same level of consideration by everybody. In order to bring Gilad home at any price, the price is that many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will need to be released back onto the streets. Some of the terrorists whose names have been submitted for release to the Israeli government, are terrorists who have actually murdered Israeli soldiers or civilians. For each of these terrorists that may be released, there are victims and there are families of those victims. It would be extremely inconsiderate and disrespectful to ride roughshod over these victims' families and their feelings.

An article forcefully outlining why terrorists should not be released was recently written by Rabbi Stewart Weiss and published in the Jerusalem Post (see "A nation held hostage"). Rabbi Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Centre in Ra'anana Israel, and the father of Sgt. Ari Weiss z"l who was killed in 2002 during an IDF raid on Hamas headquarters in Nablus. In his article, Rabbi Weiss describes a conversation that he held with a woman who is advocating a deal to free Gilad Shalit at any price. In the conversation, he asked her if the price that she is prepared to pay includes the life of her child. The implications of this statement are obvious - Rabbi Weiss has already paid this price. Clearly, every parent is willing the government to do a deal at any price, until the price includes the life of their own child. This is when the price becomes too much. In a letter published in the newspaper which followed up his article, Rabbi Weiss also argues that halacha (Jewish law) demands that the deal to save one life not be done when the deal endangers other lives. These people are not advocating that Israel should completely forget about Gilad Shalit. They argue that his freedom should be secured through a military operation.

I fully understand the notion that bereaved families rest easier at night knowing that the murderers of their loved ones are behind bars. Release of these murderers will surely be considered an insult to the memory of the departed. I am extremely sensitive to the need to continue to respect the memories of those who have died in defending the Jewish homeland, and those who have been innocently murdered whilst going about their daily business.

As much as one does not wish to present this as a conflict between honouring the memories of the departed and their families, and honouring one who is held in captivity, this is what it boils down to. Without any intention to disrespect anybody, my choice would be to respect the one life that can be saved over the lives that may be lost. I am under no illusions that the risk of Israelis losing their lives is made greater by the release of murderers from Israeli prisons. On the contrary, there are reported to be many Palestinians roaming free in the West Bank and Gaza who would be willing and able to murder Jews given the chance to do so. I do not believe that releasing murderers will make this occurrence more likely. So rather than speculating about lives that may or may not be lost, it is my choice to secure the life that we know will definitely be saved.

We are led to believe that the Israeli secret service knows exactly where Gilad is held in the Gaza Strip, but is unable to free him in a military operation. The reason for this is that the area around where he is held is so heavily booby-trapped that there is no prospect of freeing him alive. This casts Israeli memories back to 1994 when captured IDF soldier Nachshon Waxman was killed during a military operation to attempt to free him from captivity. The IDF is determined not to allow this to happen again. If this fact is true, the only prospect of Gilad returning home is via a negotiated deal.

There seems to be little choice for the Israeli government. The vast majority of the public expects that it will do all that it can to secure Gilad's release, and at any price. Failure to do so will be remembered long into the future of the State of Israel. No matter what good things he may or may not achieve, Netanyahu's legacy will almost certainly hinge upon the outcome of this delicate issue. Whilst he may posture and add conditions for Hamas to consider before agreeing the deal, it seems to me to be inconceivable that this deal will not be concluded in the near future.

At the same time, we should always remember people like the Weiss family, and the ultimate sacrifice that they have made. Despite the position that I hold on the Shalit deal, I will always respect those who have been prepared to pay "any price" in the defence of the State of Israel. The Jewish people can be proud that there are so many in Israel like the Weiss family who are willing to continue to protect Israel and the Jewish people, despite the dangers involved. May the memories of our heroes be for a blessing.

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