“All you do all day is threaten that there will be Katyusha rockets landing in Ashkelon. Would you mind telling me why there are no rockets fired from Aqaba to Eilat?”
– Foreign Minister and Labor MK Shimon Peres, Knesset minutes, September 9, 1993
I could still hear Peres’s words echoing when Katyusha rockets began exploding in Haifa a few days ago, some of them just several blocks from my home. Filled with thousands of lead pellets to maximize the carnage, one of them ended the lives of nine people in a Haifa train depot.
I contemplated those words while Patriot missile batteries were being erected on my campus at the University of Haifa. The college was shut down for the duration of the attacks, but I proposed to the powers-that-be that all leftist professors be forcibly kept on campus to serve as human shields.
The e-mails and phone calls come in nonstop. Why are you online and not down in the bomb shelter, you meshugena? asks a friend from California. I reply that there are too many spiderwebs down there.
The Katyushas landing in Haifa were, for all intents and purposes, dropped here by Ehud Barak.
In the summer of 2000, in what amounted to a cowardly unilateral retreat, then-Prime Minister Barak ordered the IDF to abandon its positions in southern Lebanon. Hizbullah terrorists had been sniping at Israeli troops inside Lebanon and the toll was slowly mounting. With a bit of initiative Israel could have put a stop to that, but instead Barak opted for placing all of northern Israel within the rocket sites of the terrorists.
Ever since that withdrawal, the Israeli Left had been patting itself on its collective back, insisting that the unilateral retreat had not only worked but could serve as a role model for Gaza and the West Bank.
The abandonment of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip was largely based on that notion, as is Prime Minister Olmert’s current plan for “contraction” in the West Bank. After all, the retreat from Lebanon had “worked” in the sense that the Lebanese border seemed to be “relatively” tranquil, with a death toll below what it had been when the Israeli army was still on the ground in Lebanon.
Six years have passed since the retreat from southern Lebanon. The attitude of the Israeli chattering classes toward that “success” is illustrative of what I call the September 10th Syndrome. On September 10, 2001, there were many public figures in the U.S. convinced that there was no chance terrorists could or would strike America. Their conclusion, to quote Mark Twain, was just a little premature.
Israel has suffered from a mass infestation of September 10th Syndrome ever since the capitulation to Hizbullah in 2000. But in recent days it’s become clear that there can be something even worse than such an affliction – namely, suffering from September 10th Syndrome on September 12, i.e., not even realizing how wrong one had been even after events should have removed all doubt.
True, the Lebanese border remained “relatively” quiet after the Barak withdrawal, but not for the reasons marketed by the Israeli political establishment. All that had happened was that Syria was cowed into keeping the Lebanese border quiet for a while after 2001 due to its fears of being targetedby an enraged America on the warpath against Middle East terrorism.
The supposed success of the Lebanese capitulation was also the official theology behind Israel’s security fence in the West Bank. The security fence along the Lebanese border was thought to have demonstrated that all Israel now needed to do with Gaza and the West bank was get itself out and build similar fences, replete with all manner of electronic gizmos, just as it had done along the Lebanese border. After all, the politicians kept chanting, once there were no Israeli troops in “Arab lands,” the Arab side would have no reason to engage in terror and military aggression against Israel.
Of course, the Barak withdrawal never really solved anything. The Lebanese border was not calm. Thousands of state-of-the-art rockets were sitting there, ready to strike. Shelling and cross-border incursions by Hizbullah were regular occurrences, and Hizbullah agents were freely wandering the Gaza Strip, helping Hamas build its bombs. In short, the Lebanese border was as secure and as calm as the World Trade Center towers were on September 10, 2001.
There is no diplomatic way of putting this. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in Gaza and along the Lebanese border is the direct result of Israel’s rewarding and appeasing terrorism over the past few decades. Long gone are the days when Israelis boasted that their government never negotiated with terrorists.
The 1976 Entebbe rescue was the greatest and, alas, the last serious use by Israel of force to deal with the kidnapping of Israelis by Arab terrorists. Since then, Israel has more often than not dealt with hostage situations by capitulating and conceding.
Such situations, of course, are never easy, both from a strategic and a moral perspective. There is a complex trade-off between the desire to free hostages at once and the need to deter and punish hostage grabbers. The understandable human – and humane – instinct to seek the immediate freeing of hostages must be weighed against actions that will put other lives in jeopardy. Decision makers face the dilemma that saving a single life today may well produce scores of deaths tomorrow.
• In 1985, the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir carried out a prisoner exchange with the “Jibril” terrorists. Israel agreed to release more than a thousand Arabs incarcerated for terrorist activities in exchange for three Israeli soldiers. Just three days after the trade, one of those released Arabs was brought into an Israeli hospital. He had accidentally blown himself up while preparing a bomb intended for Israeli shoppers. Others among the released terrorists would, in the months and years to come, participate in a number of attacks and murders.
• On October 16, 1986, while on a mission over southern Lebanon, Israeli air force navigator Lieutenant Colonel Ron Arad and his pilot were forced by a technical problem to parachute out of their plane. The pilot was rescued by an Israeli chopper, but Arad fell captive to terrorists belonging to the Lebanese Shi’ite Amal militia. All trace of Arad was lost. Since 1986, Israel has engaged in feeble and pointless attempts at “quiet diplomacy” in order to win the release of Arad or at least learn of his fate. The efforts have produced nothing.
• In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin launched his “peace plan” of legitimizing and recognizing the PLO and at the same time ordered the expulsion of 400 Hamas terrorists from the West Bank and Gaza to Lebanon. The expulsion had near-universal support in Israel. Shortly thereafter, however, Israel permitted almost all the expelled terrorists return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they resumed their leadership roles in terror organizations. It was a yet another goodwill gesture for which Israel got nothing in exchange. Not even information on Ron Arad.
• In 1994, in the middle of Rabin’s “peace initiative,” Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman. The kidnappers held him hostage in the West Bank village of Bir Naballah, which had long been a hotbed of terror.
On October 7, 1994, villagers violently attacked Israeli soldiers who were trying to storm the Bir Naballah home in which Wachsman was being held. The terrorists had enough time to murder Wachsman before his would-be rescuers got into the house. Israel did not bulldoze the village in retaliation, just as it has not bulldozed other West Bank villages in which soldiers and civilians have been murdered.
These days, Israeli leftists are busy assisting the residents of Bir Naballah in sabotaging the security wall Israel is constructing, because it offends the sensitivities of the Arab villagers.
• In July 2003 the Israeli cabinet decided in a 14-9 vote to buy Ariel Sharon a Kodak moment in Washington by releasing more than 500 Palestinian prisoners, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah terrorists, again as a “goodwill gesture.” Few of the released terrorists took up quilting.
• In January 2004, Israel agreed to an exchange with Hizbullah. More than 400 Arab prisoners, many accused of killing civilians, were released in return for a single Israeli civilian hostage and the bodies of the three soldiers who had been murdered in cold blood by Hizbullah.
The prisoner exchange was widely opposed in Israel, and passed the Israeli cabinet by a single vote. Afterward, Israel never avenged the three soldiers murdered by Hizbullah. A suicide bombing that killed 10 Israelis took place the very day of the prisoners’ release, but Israel went ahead with it anyway.
Two of those set free had been high-ranking Lebanese terrorists, directly involved in the kidnapping, torture, and reported “sale” of Ron Arad to Iran. Israel did not even demand information on the whereabouts of Arad in exchange, just an empty promise of some information in the future, which, needless to say, has never materialized.
At the time, the Arab media crowed in smug satisfaction at Israel’s humiliation in the prisoner release. Al-Ahram called it a “new notch in Hizbullah’s belt!” In Israel it was seen as a debacle. Even Yoel Marcus at Israel’s far-left daily Haaretz called it a “License to Kidnap.”
Yuval Arad, Ron Arad’s daughter, said she felt Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had abandoned her father. In a letter to Sharon, she wrote: “I can’t understand how you can sleep at night … you’re about to release the man who tortured him [her father].”
In the early stages of the Allied invasion of Iraq, a number of Western hostages were grabbed by terrorist groups. Some were murdered by beheading. The U.S. and Britain did not release any captured terrorists in exchange for any hostages, nor did they make any other concessions to the terrorists. On the contrary, in cases where hostages were not released unharmed, allied troops went after the kidnappers with a special vengeance and ferocity. The result was an end to the wave of kidnappings.
The Israeli strategy of appeasing terrorists by releasing prisoners has caused more kidnappings and more terrorism. The lessons of recent years are as simple as they are absent from Israeli policy thinking. Releasing prisoners to appease terrorists causes more kidnapping. Refusing to capitulate to terrorist demands stops the kidnapping. Cutting and running when rockets fall causes them to fall in much larger numbers.
Yes, Jewish tradition has always allowed, indeed mandated, payment for the redemption of Jewish captives. Buried in the Aramaic in every marriage contract is a clause that obligates husbands (male readers, be warned!) to ransom their wives should they be taken captive.
But there were always clear limits on what could be paid for ransom – for two reasons. The first was to “avoid placing onerous economic burdens on the community.” But the second was more for strategic considerations, and in some ways is the more important. Paying out large ransoms creates incentive for further kinappings and inspires escalated ransom demands. The Talmudic sages understood what Israel’s politicians do not.
During the Middle Ages, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, one of the last Tosophists, was the leader of German Jewry. He prohibited women from wearing tefillin but at the same time was a strong defender of wives against abusive husbands. Some of his elegies are still part of the prayer book. (Interestingly, there are reports that he claimed to be a direct descendent of the evil emperor Nero.)
Convinced that Jews had no future in Ashkenaz (Germany), Rabbi Meir was leading a contingent of families to the Land of Israel when he was abducted by the authorities in Basel and held for ransom. He prohibited the Jewish community from paying for his release, fearing it would encourage more kidnappings of Jews. He died in a prison near Colmar in 1291, and some years later his body was ransomed and then buried in Worms. Rabbi Meir chose death over putting the burden of frequent abductions on the entire Jewish population.
At the time of the capitulation by the Israeli government to Hizbullah in the 2004 mass release of terrorists, Israeli politicians insisted that they had no choice and were just following the dictates of Jewish ethics. While it is nice to hear Israeli politicians (uncharacteristically) acknowledge the importance of Jewish ethics, they had no idea what those ethics actually say about hostage redemption (or anything else). They were simply looking for a pseudo-ethical argument to use as a fig leaf for their appeasement of terrorists.
Speaking of Jewish ethics, Judaism unambiguously supports the death penalty for murderers, whereas Israeli politicians are pusillanimously opposed to it. Let us take note of the fact that no terrorist has ever murdered anyone else after being executed.
Had convicted terrorists and murderers been executed in Israel all along, there would be few terrorist prisoners frolicking in Israeli jails, serving as bait and incentive for Palestinian militias and Hizbullah to kidnap Jews.
Had Hizbullah villages been turned into parking lots years ago, there would be no Katyushas falling on northern Israel.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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