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A Nation Held Hostage

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With Sgt. Gilad Shalit safely returned in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists and murderers, celebration – propelled by wishful avoidance – spread throughout Israel.

It was said that peace in our time, even peace now, might be imminent. The disproportionate exchange could transform the relationship between Israel and Hamas, leading to a final peace agreement. Israel’s relations with Egypt, precarious ever since President Mubarak’s overthrow, and with Turkey, frayed since the Mavi Marmara flotilla confrontation, would improve. Even Shalit himself, interviewed on Egyptian television shortly before his return, envisioned renewed prospects for peace.

But Hamas, whose charter still proclaims the destruction of the Jewish state as its goal, has other plans. It immediately called for more Israeli soldiers to be kidnapped, the better to free 5,000 Palestinian terrorists still imprisoned. A far likelier scenario than peace is the collaborative tightening of the noose around Israel by Hamas, Hizbullah, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

There was, understandably,  widespread euphoria among Israelis over the return of Shalit. “Bring Gilad Back,” the five-year campaign run by a well-known public relations firm with unremitting media support, had succeeded. Unrelenting pressure from the Shalit family, backed by public rallies and a tent outside the prime minister’s residence, finally prevailed.

But family members of victims brutally murdered in Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, whose perpetrators now roam free, became mourners once again. They include the relatives of fifteen children killed in the Sbarro pizzeria bombing masterminded by Ahlam Tamimi; thirty Israelis killed in the Park Hotel Passover Seder bombing planned by Nasser Yataima; twenty-one Israelis killed at a Tel Aviv nightclub and fourteen diners killed  at a Haifa restaurant, ordered by Husam Badran; and eleven Israelis killed at a Jerusalem café, orchestrated by Waled Anjes.

Now Tamimi, Yataima, Badran and Anjes, with hundreds of others, are free to murder once again.

Palestinian terrorists have a proven strategy: launch attacks; slaughter Israelis by the dozens; kidnap a soldier; and bargain for his release in exchange for prisoners who will then repeat the deadly cycle. The more fervently Israel pursues the return of a captured soldier, the greater his value in the eyes of Hamas and the higher the price that its negotiators will demand in return.

Eliad Moreh, severely wounded in the Hebrew University bombing nearly a decade ago that killed seven, said, “When the government releases these murderers…there is no justice.” Meir Schijveschuurder, whose parents and three siblings were killed in the Sbarro bombing, described the exchange as “madness” and announced the intention of surviving family members to return to Holland. “We have been betrayed,” said Sherri Mandel, mother of a murdered 13-year-old boy. “To pardon terrorists mocks our love and our pain.”

The Shalit deal climaxed forty years of exchanges in which escalating numbers of Palestinians have been released: 1 (1970); 76 (1979); 1150 (1985). Israelis claim the exchanges demonstrate their fidelity to the ancient moral obligation to redeem captives – which, however, is challenged by the Talmudic principle (in Gittin) that “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth, so that enemies will not dedicate themselves to take other people captive.”

In the past decade alone nearly two hundred Israelis have been murdered by terrorists who were released for soldiers, living or dead. The likelihood of more killings has now increased. But, as Yossi Zur suggested, now eight years after his son Asaf was among seventeen high-school students killed by a Hamas suicide bomber, “since the names and faces of the future victims are not known, it is permissible to…fantasize that nothing will happen.” Israelis are left to discover who among them will die from the Shalit exchange.

The burden of decision, in the end, was borne by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It was his responsibility, he recognized, to balance “the need to return home someone whom the State of Israel has sent to the battlefield” with “minimizing the danger to the security of Israel’s citizens.” Acknowledging “the pain of the families of the victims of terrorism,” he settled for “the best agreement we could achieve.”

In his letter to bereaved families, Netanyahu wished that they “will find solace that I and the entire nation of Israel embrace you and share your pain.” But that offered little consolation to the families of terror victims, whose organization, Almagor, responded: “Your letter is a mockery to us…. There is no victory here, but a major disaster and a humiliating surrender.”

Following a prisoner exchange five years ago, Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund noted that three decades after the daring Entebbe mission, when 102 hostages were rescued from a hijacked airplane and all the hijackers were killed, “Israel has gone from being a country that frees hostages to one that frees terrorists.”

Comparing the Shalit exchange with Entebbe, Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv that the failure to launch a rescue mission for Shalit, imprisoned only a few kilometers across the Gaza border, was “one of the worst intelligence and military failures in the country’s history.”  Indeed, Noam Shalit revealed that his son was located “in proximity” to where the IDF was fighting during Operation Cast Lead and “heard the noises of the war clearly.”

By effectively holding itself hostage, Israel has paid a high price that is likely to endanger its citizens once the released terrorists have absorbed the lesson of their freedom. As Wafa al-Bass, imprisoned for trying to smuggle an explosive vest into Israel and now a free woman, declared defiantly: “I expect that kidnapping soldiers to swap them for security prisoners is the best way to clear the prisons.”

The final cost of the Shalit exchange is yet to be calculated, but it surely will be higher than its defenders seem prepared to acknowledge. Hamas promises to kidnap Israeli soldiers until all imprisoned terrorists are released – and more Israelis surely will be murdered along the way by those who have now been given another opportunity to kill. In Israel’s war against Palestinian terrorism the reward for surrender is not likely to be victory.

“On us, the young men of Israel,” 22-year-old Yonatan Netanyahu wrote to his parents, “rests the duty of keeping our country safe.” Commander of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, he would sacrifice his life at Entebbe to rescue Israeli hostages.

Twenty years later, in a book entitled Fighting Terrorism, an Israeli author firmly reiterated: “Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.”

Those were prescient words, indeed – written by Benjamin Netanyahu, Yonatan’s brother.

There was a time when an Israeli soldier would risk his life to save civilians. Now the lives of Israeli civilians are placed at risk to save a soldier. It is a discomforting inversion.

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.

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