On the eve of the joyous Sukkot holiday, Israel learned that Gilad Shalit—the soldier kidnapped and held incommunicado by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006—was soon to be freed in exchange for a thousand security prisoners. That number was already set by the previous government of Ehud Olmert when it started negotiating with Hamas on Shalit. It is, though, the highest price Israel, with its history of lopsided prisoner deals, has ever paid for a single soldier.
Predictably, celebrations broke out in the West Bank and Gaza. But Israelis, except for a small group Tuesday night at the Shalit family’s protest tent in Jerusalem, and despite the confluence of the news and the holiday and the fact that polls have found a large majority supporting such a deal, may feel profoundly relieved but are not celebrating.
The deal lays down that about 450 of the Palestinian prisoners will be released in a first stage, 550 in a later one. Of the 450, 110 will be released to their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 163 (who are West Bank residents) will be deported to Gaza, 40 (also West Bank residents) will be deported out of the country, and the rest include Gazans who will return to Gaza as well as six Israeli Arabs who will likewise go home.
In the years of tortuous, on-and-off negotiations leading up to this deal, Israel insisted that a larger number of these prisoners, many of them serving life terms for murderous attacks, be deported to Gaza or abroad; Hamas insisted that they include a set of major terrorist masterminds. Israel yielded somewhat on the number to be allowed into the West Bank; Hamas yielded on the masterminds.
That means Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah ringleader of the savage Second Intifada, Abbas Sayyad, organizer of the 2002 Passover attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya, and others of that ilk will stay behind bars hopefully for good.
As for the second round of 550 prisoners, Israel gets to choose who they are, though they have to include all prisoners who are women or minors. In other words, mostly (but not exclusively) a less bloody and dangerous lot than the first 450.
Israel’s bloated cabinet voted 26-3 in favor of this most disproportionate of Israel’s prisoner deals—notable especially for a right-leaning government. The votes of the 26 stemmed both from conviction and from the public’s strong backing for such a deal. On Tuesday night Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the nation:
I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all. It is very possible that this window of opportunity that opened because of the circumstances would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all.
In other words: Egypt’s military government played a major role in mediating the deal, something that could soon have become impossible as the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical forces gain strength in that country. As for Hamas, the weakening of its Syrian base and its resultant need to appease Egypt, its Fatah rival Mahmoud Abbas’s recent gain in popularity thanks to his UN statehood bid, and its fear of an “Arab spring”-type revolt in Gaza are conditions that made it want to quickly close a deal. Despite Hamas’s major concession on the ringleaders, many Gazans, West Bankers, and other Arabs will regard it as a triumph.
The Israeli security chiefs—Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Mossad head Tamir Pardo, and Shin Bet (internal security) head Yoram Cohen—all affirmed that there was no military option to free Shalit and came out in favor of the deal. Pardo’s and Cohen’s predecessors both opposed such a swap, though that was when Hamas was insisting that the masterminds be included.
Cohen, explaining his position, called it “the best deal possible” while allowing that “it is not simple to release 280 murderers” and “noting that [the deal] would likely increase Hamas’s motivation to attack Israel and try to abduct more soldiers.” He said further:
I think that we will be able to deal with the threat and potential dangers.… We cannot promise that they will not produce terror. Statistics show that 60 percent of those released in prisoner swaps return to activity in their terrorist organizations and that 15 to 20 percent return to Israeli prisons.
He also noted that the 110 to be released to the West Bank will be under strict surveillance. Optimists point to Israel’s currently strong security capabilities there, which have kept lethal terrorism to a minimum for years.
On one side, then, a further encouragement of kidnapping; a possible spike in terror; the pain of relatives of the victims of the released prisoners; a boost to Hamas; and a dire subversion of justice as murderers go free.
Understanding, then, why Israel’s top security officials as well as a large majority of its government and public nevertheless support the deal requires understanding certain underlying intangibles of Israeli society. Simple sympathy for Shalit and his family is, of course, one of them, but not the whole story. As Netanyahu put it in his speech Tuesday night:
I am happy that I succeeded in fulfilling the Jewish decree of redeeming captives…. The nation of Israel is a unique people. We are all mutually responsible for each other, as our sages said: “He who saves one soul, it is as though he saved an entire world.”
To which it can be objected—validly—that in this case, the statistical record suggests that saving one soul means condemning other souls. To which, in turn, it can be replied that danger is inherent in being a Jewish, non-Muslim state in the Middle East, and fundamental to coping with it is a solidarity that goes to the deepest level of Israel’s ethos of survival in a hostile environment.
For most of us, abandoning Gilad to his fate was simply not an option.