In March 1978, at the conclusion of the Litani Operation in South Lebanon, five Israeli soldiers and a civilian jumped into a car and decided to go on an outing. The group took to the road in defiance of army regulations and somehow got waived through a forward checkpoint. Moments later they found themselves surrounded by heavily armed Palestinians. Four of the five soldiers were killed instantly, while the civilian miraculously made it back to Israeli lines the next day.
The fifth soldier was taken captive by the PFLP-GC, the Palestinian terror group headed by Ahmed Jibril.
Up to that point, Israel had a firm policy of trading soldiers for soldiers. Terrorists sentenced to life in prison were expected to spend life in prison. Exchanges with terror groups sometimes occurred in hostage situations, but they were rare and always premised on trading one for one.
In 1970, an Israeli farmer in the northern village of Metulla was kidnapped by Palestinians and taken to Lebanon. The Palestinians demanded the release of dozens of jailed terrorists. The Israeli government held firm, and in the end the farmer’s release was secured for just one terrorist.
With this in mind, a team was assembled in Jerusalem in 1978 to negotiate the release of the soldier. A terrorism expert named Ariel Merari circulated a memo that concluded the captured Israeli had “no market value.” Accordingly, he advised the government to set a low value and stick to it. Above all, he urged political leaders not to meet with the soldier’s family.
Both pieces of advice were ignored. The family of the soldier first met with Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann. Merari later remembered that “Weizmann had a hard time standing up to the pressure, he folded, he promised and he declared that they had an open line to him whenever they wanted.” The same thing happened when the family met with Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
The initial offer from the Jibril camp was to swap the soldier for 19 Palestinians captured during the Litani Operation plus another six or seven in Israeli jails. It was deemed a reasonable offer. The 19 captured in the field were combatants, not terrorists, and the six or seven were all low value prisoners that were either sick or wounded.
Merari advised going slow. This was, after all, the way it worked in the Arab souk. You showed little interest for what the other side was offering and then slowly negotiated your way to the finish line. Were Israel to accept the first offer, it would send the message that it would pay more. The general placed in charge of the negotiations wanted to wrap up the talks quickly and ignored this advice as well. With that, Merari tendered his resignation.
A year later, Merari was asked to return. Every dark prophecy of his had come true. The price from Jibril had climbed to the original 19 Palestinians captured in the field plus 76 terrorists held in Israeli jails, many of whom were murderers. Merari couldn’t believe his ears. He advised walking from the negotiating table, breaking off all contact.
His advice was ignored once again. In the end, Jerusalem released the 19 combatants together with the 76 terrorists. Merari later calculated that the freed Palestinians had combined sentences remaining of over 2,800 years.
Ahmed Jibril had learned a valuable lesson. You didn’t need to hijack an airplane to free jailed terrorists. In fact, not only was it unnecessary, it was undesirable. When the Palestinians held large numbers of hostages, the Israelis sent in commandos to free them. When they held a single soldier, the Israelis refrained from any heroics because of the inevitable loss of life. The Israelis took four killed to free 106 hostages in Entebbe. But they wouldn’t take four killed to free just one soldier. Instead they gave in.
This logic, if one could call it that, was carried to a further extreme just a few years later. At the conclusion of the First Lebanon War in 1982, eight Israeli soldiers were captured by a smaller number of Palestinians. There was clear dereliction of duty on the part of the soldiers. According to some published accounts, bitterly denied by the soldiers, they were captured while playing cards on guard duty. Either way, six of the eight ended up in the hands of Yasir Arafat. A little over a year later they were traded for 4,700 Fatah fighters who had surrendered during the war plus 63 terrorists in Israeli jails.