Trading lives: Gilad Shalit – Israeli perspectives

Though critics consider the trade a tactical weakness, Israelis on the front lines want to know that the government will work for their safe return in the event of their capture.
David Volodzko
31 October 2011

On 25 June 2006 a 19-year-old Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas militants near Gaza, and in the five years since, Israelis have waited with white knuckles for the day of his release. But now that the day has come, the decision that earned Gilad Shalit's freedom has been met with denigration as many question whether one life warrants the release of 1,027 Palestinian terrorists, terrorists whose number includes those responsible for the 2001 Sbarro Restaurant suicide bombing, the Hebrew University bombing of 2002 and the Passover massacre that same year that left 30 dead and over 140 wounded. 

Sergeant First Class Shalit was released on 18 October 2011, and critics of the trade seem focused on its disproportionality. But speaking with Israelis, it's apparent few here consider the issue in such black-and-white terms. To begin with, Prime Minister Netanyahu has his job to consider, and in light of this summer's widespread protests over the exorbitant cost of living in Israel, it wouldn't be surprising if one intended subtext of the deal was Bibi's warm generosity (which critics might say throws as much warmth on Hamas as on Israel).The cost-benefit analysis of the trade should also include whatever information Gilad Shalit might be able to provide Shabak officials regarding his captors.

However all this is merely surface. A truer understanding of the situation requires certain cultural considerations. For example, there is Israel's strong sense of community. This is perhaps particularly noteworthy given that the nation is stunningly diverse. In fact it's one of the first things to strike new visitors, apart from the heat. There are Sephardi from Spain and Portugal, Ashkenazi from eastern Europe, Arab Mizrahi, Bnei Menashe from India, Beta Israel from Ehtiopia, Kaifeng from China, Cochini Anjuvannam from Malaysia, not to mention the various Arab Muslims, Christians, Baha'i and Druze. Social conflict between these groups is often stark, but despite politically-charged reasons not to get along, violence between them is almost nonexistent. Both as part of Jewish culture and the cohesion that living among enemies might engender in any population, the Israeli people are, at least with matters concerning state security, a community inclined to view the capture of any member as a deeply personal, almost familial loss. This mentality is no doubt reinforced by the fact that all Israelis over the age of 18 (though Arab Israelis may exempt) must serve in the military: three years for men and two for women. Therefore while the scales of proportion might seem out of whack, that's precisely the point. The message to terrorists is clear: one of us is worth a thousand of you.

But the return of Gilad Shalit satisfies more than a sense of community. Though critics consider the trade a tactical weakness, Israelis on the front lines want to know that the government will work for their safe return in the event of their capture. In assuming the moral high ground, one is required to actually behave with a greater sense of virtue, and therefore Israel finds itself forced into a position where it must act in ways that publicly demonstrate to the world that it is doing everything it can to be reasonable, despite having to deal with unreasonable enemies. The trade for Gilad Shalit, an almost suicidal compromise, serves as such a demonstration. Rather than what Machiavelli called "a lion to frighten wolves", Israel must position itself instead like one in need of Androcles.

But this isn't to say Israeli inclinations toward righteousness are a facade. They have an internal provenance too, as marked by the absence in Judaism of anything like istishhad (Islamic martyrdom). Though Jewish faith does allow for martyrs, known as kedoshim, they obtain their status by fulfilling the commandment of Kiddush Hashem, which calls upon Jews to honour the name of God. One becomes a kedosh through death by refusing to worship idols, violate Levitical sexual laws or take another human being's life. For example the Jews who would not convert and were therefore killed during the Spanish Inquisition are kedoshim. Jews can also become kedoshim if they are killed simply for being Jewish, such as the six million victims of Nazi genocide. In other words the difference is that martyrdom in Judaism cannot be attained through killing. This, and the posture Israel must maintain if it wishes to keep foreign allies, puts the nation at a natural disadvantage that would be catastrophic if Israeli soldiers lost faith in the military high command. The dry fact of the matter is that by refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the Israeli government would effectively forsake its captured soldiers to become martyrs themselves, and the resultant impact on morale would constitute a serious compromise to Israeli security. But of course, so does negotiating.

However putting aside the Prime Minister's motivations, potential intelligence gains, Israel's sense of community and the struggle for the moral high ground, there remains one sharp feature of the trade that opponents miss: those 1,027 terrorists won't make a difference. There are plenty more where they came from, willing to commit acts of terror whether Israel brokers deals or not, and what is important now is maintaining a strong sense of unity in the face of such threats. This is what the return of Israel's sons and daughters provides. The deal may have been reckless, but it's less clear that it was wrong.

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