Sunday 23 October 2011

Gilad is Finally Home, But the Controversy Rages On

Israel experienced its highest-ever TV ratings over a one day period last week on Tuesday, when captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit finally returned home.  The nation was glued to its TV sets as we watched events unfold over the day, finally culminating in a weak-looking Gilad returning to Israel and to the waiting arms of his family.  He had spent 5 years and 4 months held in captivity by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Representatives from Hamas have made public statements about how well Gilad was treated.  It is claimed that he was well fed during the years of his captivity, and allowed access to media including Israeli TV and radio broadcasts.  Although they have also claimed that he was not subject to torture at their hands, Gilad's father Noam has expressed doubt about this.  He does, however, concur with the Hamas statements that Gilad was treated better in the latter years of his captivity.  Noam's comments allow us to believe that the first years were not easy, and may well have included torture.  The facts on the day of the prisoner transfer, however, speak for themselves.  It was difficult not to notice the stark difference in the conditions of the 477 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel, when compared to that of Gilad.  The Palestinian prisoners looked well-fed and physically in good health as they sat on buses and smoked while waiting for the exchange deal to proceed.  They had been granted access to members of their family and international organisations as required by the Geneva Convention.  The same could not be said for Gilad, who walked with difficulty after being kept away from daylight for most of his years in captivity.  Neither his family nor members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed access to him for more than 5 years, despite repeated requests.

As Gilad tries to get to know his family and friends again at his home in Mitzpe Hila, the debate rages through the pages of the Israeli press and around the world about whether the prisoner exchange deal that secured his release was justified.  With 477 Palestinian prisoners already released, and a further 550 slated for release in 2 months' time as part of the deal, there are those in Israel who feel that the price paid for the return of just one prisoner was too high.  This view is even further enhanced when considering the crimes committed by those who have been set free.  The list of released prisoners includes murderers and terrorists who collectively succeeded in killing hundreds of innocent Israelis.  The incidents in which these attacks took place range from the detonation of a bomb in pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem to an explosion at a hotel where thousands celebrated the Passover holiday, and more.  It is perfectly understandable that the family members of the victims of these attacks are suffering anguish as a result of these killers being set free.  There are those who believe that the release of these terrorists, many of whom have vowed to return to their old murderous ways, increases the security risk to Israeli civilians.  There are many naysayers who are literally waiting for the next wave of terror attacks to hit Israel in order to justify their resistance to prisoner exchange deal.  Yet others are opposed to the deal because they believe that it represents capitulation to terrorists, and encourages them to kidnap Israeli soldiers or civilians in the future in order to secure similar deals.  This prisoner exchange agreement, they say, shows a weakness on the part of the Israeli government and her citizens.

Most of the points for and against the exchange deal are fairly well-known, and have enjoyed broad discussion in the Israeli and international press.  There are, however, additional considerations that have come to my mind, and which are perhaps less widely discussed.  The first point is that the concept of a prisoner exchange deal of this nature is not new.  The truth is that Israel has been doing such deals for many years.  The only thing that has differed from one deal to another, are the names and the numbers.  Over the past 30 years, Israel has released some 7,000 Palestinian prisoners and released the remains of many more.  In exchange Israel has received 19 Israelis and the remains of 8 others.  Looking back over the years, I don't believe that this has weakened Israel in any way, or shown that it is capitulating to terrorism.  On the contrary, Israel has increased its defences against terrorists in a variety of different ways to strengthen its opposition to the vile actions taken against innocent civilians.  At times, Israel has employed fairly extreme anti-terror defences, including a policy of targeted killings against those orchestrating terror activities or carrying them out.  This surely demonstrates that Israel is not getting soft on terrorists.  While agreeing to enter into prisoner swaps on the one hand, Israel has shown itself to be extremely tough on terror in many other ways.

Instead of interpreting exchange deals as showing weakness to terrorists, it is my belief that Israel is showing strength by adhering to basic principles and values which are fundamental in the Jewish religion.  These same principles are the same ones that most reasonable people around the world would identify with.  These are the principles of attaching value to the life of each and every citizen of Israel, particularly those who have fallen into captivity during the course of serving in the country's army.  This makes an important and powerful statement, not only to those serving in the army and their families, but also to our enemies.  Often, a strong set of values and principles is more important than military strength.  Armies around the world will tell you that it is tougher to fight against an enemy which has strong fundamental beliefs in its cause and in its values, than an enemy that does not.  This has not gone unnoticed in the Arab press.  A reporter writing in Abu Dhabi's English language Gulf News wrote, "It is not a secret at all that the value of an Arab person in the stock-exchange of Arab regimes is sort of nil ....  Have you ever seen an Arab regime trying to get its captives out of Israeli prisons?  Forget about it.  Most Arab regimes have no problem at all letting their nationals die in Israeli jails."  I believe that such actions do not serve to strengthen a society.  It is my view that this attitude shows greater weakness than being prepared to stay to true to a country's citizens, even if this means having to release terrorists.

Israel has a few weak spots in its history of valuing and securing the release of its citizens held by enemies.  Three soldiers, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were captured by Syrian authorities in their tank in the Golan Heights in 1982.  They have not been heard from since then, and are presumed dead.  No evidence has been produced to support this view, however, and the three are listed as missing in action.  A similar story is the one of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, which captured the attention, imagination and sympathy of the world.  Navigator Arad bailed out of his plane over Lebanon, and was captured by the enemy in 1986.  He was known to have been alive as late as 1988, after having been "sold" by Hezbollah to the Iranians.  Israeli attempts to free Arad came to nothing, and there is a strong suspicion that he died during the course of his captivity.  For 25 years, his wife and family have been unable to move on with their lives as there is no official pronouncement of life or death.  Officially, he is missing in action.  These are stains on Israel's record, and all Israelis know this.

Every nation at war is called upon to make tough decisions.  Sometimes, these decisions involve the possibility of "sacrificing" soldiers or other individuals in the interests of a greater good, or the safety of a large number of others.  In the case of Gilad Shalit, I think that any decision to sacrifice him in exchange for keeping 1,027 terrorists in prison would have been one of the toughest for anybody to make.  In due course, we think we will know the price of not sacrificing him, but it is still difficult to say that any terror activities that may occur over the coming months and years would not have occurred if the 1,027 had remained in prison.  It is my belief that there are enough "terrorists in waiting" out there to make the impact that the 1,027 may make, look insignificant.

On balance, given the alternatives between another Ron Arad situation or the current Gilad Shalit situation, the choice for me is an easy one.  We are obliged to value the life that we know that we can rescue.  In this respect, the government has made exactly the right decision.  We are also obliged to ensure that those who are released, are not allowed to cause any further damage or bloodshed.  I am sure that the IDF is on a close look-out for this.  And even though many will interpret the release of the terrorists is to be an insult to the memories of those who were killed at their hands, it is really a clear statement of the value of life.  Even if it is only one.

It is my wish that Gilad will enjoy a quick and full recovery to everyday life, and that he and his family will enjoy many years of health and happiness together.  It is equally my wish that the memories of those who were brutally murdered by terrorists, will be for a blessing.  Perhaps, above all, the fact that our society can hold this type of debate in an open and honest way, is a great demonstration of our democracy at work to build a just, caring and sensitive society.  Am Yisrael Chai - The People of Israel live!

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