1,001 Arabian nights

MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANSIt was with much skill and cunning and more than a little charm that young Scheherazade entertained Sharyar, weaving enchanting stories whereby, for 1,001 consecutive nights, she bought herself a reprieve from the jealous sultan’s pledge to lop off the pretty maiden’s head.

As Gilad Schalit approaches his own 1,001st night in captivity in Gaza, one wonders what tales have filled his mind and kept the young soldier sane, and hopeful of his own reprieve. Here in Israel, ever since Schalit was kidnapped in a cross-border raid on June 25, 2006, many have been keeping a vigil for him — and repeating a fantasy of their own.

For two and a half years, the question of Schalit’s safe return has come down to what price Israel was willing to pay, i.e., how many Palestinian security prisoners it would release. And all along the government has played a duplicitous game, pretending that it did not accept this demand as a basis for negotiations, while at the same time practically imploring the public to demand that it pay any price necessary to “bring the boy home.”

But there were bumps on that road: Hizbullah attacked the northern border, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded with a war so large and so bumbling that poor Schalit became an afterthought. Then Hamas violently overthrew Fatah in the Gaza Strip, making any concession to them unseemly. Then the rocket fire on the Negev became so brazen and so massive that even Olmert could not ignore it anymore, ordering a major incursion that smashed large parts of Gaza City and left no room for negotiations.

Now — in his final days in office — Olmert has dispatched his emissaries to Cairo for one last attempt to appease Hamas and score a stunning victory for himself. If negotiations in Egypt go well, the “prisoner swap” agreement is to be brought before the cabinet on Monday, where it is expected to pass by a slim margin.

Rushing to the defense of such a deal have been not only Schalit’s family, which erected a protest tent in front of Olmert’s residence visited by thousands of supporters — and, especially, politicians who until now have done nothing for Schalit but who suddenly see the profit in embracing the public’s sympathy for his family — but by the media, and even former security figures.

The latest quotes come from Ami Ayalon, speaking in his capacity as former head of the Shin Bet:

“There is no prisoner sitting in an Israeli jail worth Gilad Schalit’s continued captivity,” Ayalon told Israel Radio. “There is simply no one like that.”

He went on to say that freeing 450 “high-level” prisoners on the Hamas list would not necessarily lead to an increase in terror attacks.

“Terror depends less on the identity of terrorists that are freed than on diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street,” he said. “I am not ignoring the dilemma, there are contradictory values and people with blood on their hands, but on the other hand, there is a soldier that we recruited to the IDF and sent out to battle.”

Here, in the space of just a few words, is the fantasy that the Israeli people have been sold, the lullaby for their collective conscience that is paving the way for the enormous prisoner release now in the works. For, “there is no prisoner sitting in an Israeli jail worth Gilad Schalit’s continued captivity” is undoubtedly true. Yet it is irrelevant. It is a false equation.

There is no logical connection between the prisoners in Israeli jails and the young Israeli soldier being held ransom in the Gaza Strip. The prisoners were convicted of terrorism and guerilla warfare; they murdered Israelis in the name of jihad, or maimed Israelis while trying to murder them in the name of jihad, or were stopped en route to attempting to murder Israelis in the name of jihad. Their conviction and their incarceration uphold the principle of justice; their release would undermine it. Rather than mitigating the crimes that these people committed, the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit (and the murder of two of his fellow soldiers in the same raid, let’s remember) marks an additional crime above and beyond them. By rights it demands not a softening of Israel’s response toward Hamas and its partners in terrorism, but a hardening of it.

…Alas, this fundamental truth is ignored, and replaced with the idea that, if only we would rid ourselves of several hundred (or possibly well over a thousand!) low-lifes, we could rejoice in the safe return of the precious lad whose cherubic visage we have all been shown over and over again for nearly 1,001 nights.

And when someone has the nerve to ask whether it is wise to send convicted terrorists back to their masters, people like Ami Ayalon come to remind us that “terror depends less on the identity of terrorists that are freed than on diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street.” How reassuring!

Nevermind the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of Israelis have been murdered or maimed at the hands of terrorists who were released from Israeli prisons. Nevermind the fact that terrorism is entirely disconnected from the “diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street” but is supremely dependent on terrorists’ belief that they will succeed in weakening their enemy, and that it often comes in a direct attempt to thwart any “diplomatic horizon” from developing. Damn the facts, man, “there is a soldier that we recruited to the IDF and sent out to battle!”

Yes, there is a life at stake, and it is precious. Yet there is absolutely no reason to believe that releasing hordes more of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Gilad Schalit will prevent the further loss of life, while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it will in fact cause more of it. When Ariel Sharon negotiated with Hizbullah in 2004 for the return of kidnapped businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in a cross-border raid four years earlier, those who warned that releasing more than 400 terrorists was a dangerous precedent were called cold, callous and short-sighted. Yet it was in emulation of that result that Gilad Schalit’s captors dug tunnels under the Gaza border fence in June of 2006 and raided his base in the hopes of dragging home bloodied Israeli soldiers whom they could hold as bargaining chips of their own. And it was due to the success of both those raids that Hizbullah again attacked an IDF patrol along the Lebanese border less than three weeks after Schalit’s capture, succeeding in kidnapping reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Perhaps the saddest part of this whole saga, though, is that no one has the guts to tell the Schalits the truth: that releasing terrorists in exchange for their son is wrong, and endangers other Israelis; that treating Hamas with trepidation, out of fear for Schalit’s life, only emboldened the movement and invited it to step up its rocket attacks on the Negev, as well as profoundly complicating the recent incursion into Gaza, and that their son’s suffering is a tragedy but that it does not outweigh the greater security concerns of the entire state.

Of course, if Gilad Schalit does return home, it will be right and proper to cheer his freedom and his safety. And when the next Israeli is kidnapped to release even more terrorists, no one will dare ask him whether he feels responsible for it. Unfortunately, though, no one will ask Ami Ayalon or Ehud Olmert that question, either.

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4 Responses

  1. It must be said: Gilad is co-responsible for his own fate. he was not suitable for a combat unit, still he wanted to follow his brother and moved into a task he wasn’t able to cope with.

    As him, his family is even more responsible for what happened than anyone else.They were aware of their kid fragile character and let him serve on a combat unit.

    Yes, he is responsible for the mess he got into. Was he brave? Yes, he was. He attempted to challenge himself, but he failed. The line dividing bravery and stupidity is a very thin one, and sadly for him, he ended being not a hero but a failure.

  2. Mordechai, I fail to see how Schalit’s physical capabilities are relevant. Other, more capable soldiers died in the attack on his armored vehicle; that it was he who survived, and not them or someone else, was a fluke. The responsibility for his fate lies solely with his captors.

  3. There’s something else that should be considered perhaps. Israeli’s release of hundreds of prisoners for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in July makes the current deal more palatable. If Israel was willing to release prisoners for dead soldiers (for whom under normal circumstances a strong effort should be made to be properly buried in Israel), all the more reason to use the same tactic to bring a living soldier home. Nonetheless, it was a bad tactic then, and it’s a bad tactic now.

  4. Ilene, you’re hitting on one of the classic criticisms of hostage negotiations — that each deal establishes a “market price,” which legitimates hostage-taking and encourages it by providing hostage takers with a clear expectation of what they will receive in return for their “catch.”
    Emotions usually trump this approach, but it is valid, and has been proven time and again.

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