Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Democracy for One and All

During the course of the discussion that I held with my 16 year-old son regarding the recent prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel (see A Fair Swap?), he asked why Israel agreed to release Samir Kuntar alive. His view was that it would have been fairer to release Kuntar in a coffin, the same as Israel received Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in coffins.

I can understand exactly where he is coming from. It is not only the issue of balancing out the seeming lack of equality in the prisoner exchange deal. A justifiable element of revenge also seems to creep into the issue. In a perverse sort of way, however, I was proud of the fact that Kuntar was released alive.

I do not wish to turn Kuntar into a hero or minimise his horrific crimes. Let us be honest about who this monster is. He was convicted of murdering 4 Israelis in terror attacks in 1979. He shot a father in cold blood whilst his 4 year-old daughter pleaded for his life. He then bludgeoned her to death using the butt of his gun. This is not a person with a heart. This is pure evil. So what could cause me to be proud of the fact that he was released alive?

It is all about upholding democracy in a region where democracy is hard to locate. Israel is frequently upheld as the only democratic country in the Middle East. This means having to act in a manner which is contrary to all others around us in the interests of maintaining democratic principles and the rule of law. Kuntar’s release is a victory for democracy of enormous proportions.

Israel does not have the death penalty. As such, Kuntar’s conviction in an Israeli court of law in 1980 resulted in 4 life sentences being passed on him. Despite the fact that this man was a murderer and terrorist who aimed to destroy the State of Israel and its people, he was afforded the same rights as other prisoners in Israel. He married an Israeli Arab woman whilst in prison, and she received a government stipend as the wife of a prisoner until their subsequent divorce. No Guantanamo Bay here. Just the ordinary rule of law in a democratic country. I presume that an Israeli convicted of murder in Lebanon would not have been afforded the same courtesies.

A person can only respect himself if he has a healthy respect for others. The fact that Israel’s enemies may behave like animals towards Israeli prisoners does not justify similar behaviour in return. Living amongst peoples who glorify suicide bombers, I often wonder how a mother can feel pride in sending her son to his death in such an attack. It signals a lack of respect of your own people, so how can we expect them to behave towards the enemy? In emulating their behaviour, we risk sinking to these low depths.

It is said that the only behaviour that you have control over is your own. So, whilst we deplore the way in which our enemies act towards us and the prisoners that they capture, we can only ultimately control the way in which we behave. It is, therefore, our duty to exercise this control responsibly. We need to behave like honourable human beings even when we may be tempted not to. It is, after all, one of the key advantages that humans have over animals.

So Israel's democratic principles mean that we afford prisoners in our jails basic human rights, and we uphold the terms of the Geneva Convention when dealing with enemy prisoners captured. All of this despite the fact that our own captured soldiers are treated with the maximum disrespect possible.

These same principles mean that Kuntar was released alive, even though the natural inclination to seek revenge could not be satisfied. Returning him in a coffin may possibly have evened out the terms of the prisoner exchange, but perhaps it is better that this was not the case.

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