Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.
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.
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“It’s a lousy column and a dishonest one,” Halberstam wrote. “So close it. Or you will end up just as shabby as Safire.”
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