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.
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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.