Latest update: May 10th, 2013
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.
The remaining two Israeli soldiers had the misfortune of falling into the hands of Ahmed Jibril. He already held a third soldier named Hezi Shai who had been captured after fighting with great valor in an unrelated battle. Jibril knew from his previous experience that Israel would pay dearly to win the release of three soldiers so he held out for more.
Miriam Groop, the mother of one of the soldiers held by Jibril, let it be known that she would “drive the government crazy” until they brought her son home. She was as good as her word, berating officials, leading protests and fighting as only a mother could. In the end, the government not only gave in, it opened the floodgates.
For the freedom of just three soldiers, Ahmed Jibril received 1,150 convicted terroristsincluding some 400 murderers, many of whom were among the most notorious in Israeli history. One of those freed was Kozo Akimoto, who together with two others carried out the 1972 Lod Airport massacre in which 26 people were killed. The victims in that attack included Aharon Katzir, one of Israel’s most prominent scientists and brother of Israeli President Ephraim Katzir.
Professor Merari later asked one of the negotiators how they could have agreed to such an irresponsible exchange. The negotiator was Shmuel Tamir, one of the toughest and most famous lawyers in Israeli history. He responded angrily, “Let’s see what you would have done with Miriam Groop fainting on the table in front of you.”
Merari responded that this was why he’d always insisted that parents not be permitted to meet with negotiators or politicians. Yitzhak Rabin later admitted in characteristic candor that he knew it was wrong to do the deal but he couldn’t withstand the pressure of the mothers.
Even after factoring for a mother’s agony the policy is not easy to understand, particularly for a nation that has built its entire strategy on deterrence. There is certainly nothing in Jewish tradition to support it.
The Gemara states in Gittin [45A] that “it is forbidden to redeem hostages for more than their value because of the common good.” After Rabbi Meir from Rottenberg was kidnapped by a medieval king, he commanded the local Jewish community not to pay any ransom on his behalf. Instead, he spent the last seven years of his life in captivity, dying in prison in 1293.
Professor Merari summed it up as well as anyone in a newspaper interview. “The moral obligation of the government,” he said, “is to act so that the fewest possible number of Israelis get attacked. The defense minister is charged with protecting the entire country, not any particular family. If you free 500 terrorists, you do so knowing that you are sentencing dozens of Israelis to death.”
His was a voice in the wilderness. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once tried to explain Israel’s policy by noting that “the Jewish people have experienced things that other nations have not.” As a speech, it made for good political theater. As a policy statement it rated as little more than cheap demagoguery.
The Israelis of an earlier generation that had actually experienced the Holocaust never caved in to similar pressure. Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Eshkol had plenty of opportunities to engage in similar arrangements, but they never did. They only traded soldiers for soldiers and they always kept the price within reason.
* * * * *
That Israel invariably pays a terrible price in blood when it lets terrorists go is a fact acknowledged by all. SHABAK, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI, performed a study and found that fully two thirds of those freed go right back to terrorism. Some 6,912 terrorists were freed between the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and the outbreak of the al-Aksa Intifada in September 2000 – mostly as good will gestures to the Palestinian Authority, though some had served out their term. A victims group called Almagor released a study that found that in the first five years of the al-Aksa Intifada the freed terrorists killed at least 177 Israelis.
In January 2004, Israel turned 435 terrorists over to Hizbullah to win the freedom of a kidnapped drug dealer named Elchanan Tenenbaum. So far, those freed terrorists have killed 27 Israelis.
And those were just the direct costs. The indirect costs were incalculably higher. That the first Intifada in December 1987 broke out two years after the Jibril exchange has long been viewed as anything but coincidental. There is a saying in the Israel Defense Forces – “The barrel has a bottom.” There are only a finite number of people who know how to make bombs, just as there are only a finite number of people who know how to motivate others to plant bombs. Kill or arrest enough of them and the violence ends. Empty the barrel out into the streets and an Intifada is only a matter of time.
And yet, time and again the Israeli public supported lopsided exchanges, even as the price climbed ever higher. Somehow, the Israeli public internalized nothing but the pain of the families in a hostage predicament.
The checkmate argument in the debate has long been the question “What would you do if your son were in captivity?” Strangely, few seem to internalize the pain of those murdered by freed terrorists. No one thinks to ask the flip-side question: “What would you do if you knew that your son would be murdered by those released in the bargain?”
Gimmicks to limit the damage have never worked. The Israelis often refused to free terrorists who “have blood on their hands.” It was practically a distinction without a difference. These terrorists, once freed, murdered innocent people also. One such freed prisoner with “no blood on his hands” was a man named Iyad Sawalkha. During the al-Aksa Intifada he was responsible for the deaths of dozens. Among other attacks, he orchestrated two suicide bombings that killed 28 innocent people.
Another approach was to insist that freed terrorists be forced to live in exile. That tactic didn’t accomplish much either. One man among the 1,150 freed in the second Jibril exchange was a convicted murderer named Jihad Al-Amerin. At Israel’s insistence he was banished to Jordan. From there he became a leader in the group Islamic Jihad and initiated numerous terror attacks. Eventually he moved back to his home in Gaza, organized a terror group there and continued to kill Israelis until he was finally assassinated by the IDF in 2002.
Other democracies learned the futility of negotiating with terrorists and ceased the practice. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration swapped hostages for arms, only to see more Americans snatched off the streets of Beirut. Washington no longer negotiates with terrorists, and so Americans are no longer kidnapped.
* * * * *
All of which brings us to the sad story of Gilad Shalit.
Since his kidnapping by Hamas in June 2006, the floodgates of Israel’s emotion have burst open, submerging and overwhelming any attempt at a rational response. The mainstream Israeli media have abandoned any pretense of objectivity, condemning any refusal to free terrorists as cowardice and praising every concession as courageous. One popular news show ends each daily broadcast with an update of how many days Gilad has spent in captivity.
And so last week over 500 Israeli families received notices from the Defense Ministry: those who had murdered their loved ones were about to be freed.
The final tally in this latest exchange dwarfs every deal that came before it. In return for a single soldier, the State of Israel has agreed to free 1,027 convicted terrorists.
Of that number, 550 are to be selected by Israel. Presumably, they will be low-level figures nearing the end of their terms in prison. Their value to Hamas is more symbolic than real.
If they were the only terrorists to be freed, perhaps one could argue in favor of the exchange. I say perhaps, because one can’t help but question the morality of encouraging terrorists to kidnap others in the future. It has become politically incorrect to say so in Israel, but it is the job of soldiers to protect society, not the other way around.
What should have rendered the question moot is the identities of the remaining 477 terrorists. At least 280 of them were serving life sentences, and several were responsible for some of the most notorious terror attacks in Israeli history.
One woman, Ahlem Tamimi, drove the suicide bomber who killed 15 in the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem. She has already been seen on Israeli television smiling and saying she has no regrets. And why should she? She has served only ten years in prison and she will soon be free to plan the deaths of more innocent people.
Don’t believe a word of the fashionable nonsense pulsating through the Israeli media in praise of Netanyahu. The likely price yet to be paid for this historic blunder is too painful to contemplate. Either way, we are witnessing a complete victory for Hamas and the forces of terror.
Uri Kaufman is the author of
“Low Level Victory,” to be released shortly by Harmony Books.
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