Gilad Shalit Freed: Israel's Native Son Is Home
It was a relief for many Israelis to see the first glimpses of POW Corporal Gilad Shalit as he embraced his new found freedom on Israeli soil, Tuesday, October 18, 2011. But, there were mixed emotions about the price tag Israel paid for his freedom. The exchange deal the Israeli government made with Hamas included the release of 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arabs serving time in Israeli jails. Most were convicted murderers and bombers who planned or committed terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.
On Tuesday, Israel began the process of releasing 477 of the prisoners, with the promise that the rest will be released in two months’ time. Forty, who committed the most heinous crimes, will be deported to Syria, Qatar, and Turkey. It has been calculated that the prisoners being released killed a total of 588 people, most of them civilians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bring Shalit home proved to Israelis that the bond between the state and its soldiers is sacrosanct. It confirmed the value the Jewish State places on one single life. For many Israelis, Shalit’s release is an affirmation of life, as well as the government’s commitment to every soldier. It upholds the revered position the IDF has in Israeli society.
Yet, for those citizens who watched with horror as Arab murderers of their loved ones were released from prison, it sent a very different message. Victims of terror expected justice to be served when these terrorists were put behind bars with multiple life sentences. Now these killers are free to conduct more terrorist attacks, and that produces anxiety and fear in the hearts of many Israelis.
Polls indicate that 69%-80% of the Israeli public approved the prisoner exchange, but a majority of the population also thinks that it will greatly increase the risk of future terrorist attacks. Analysts say if that happens, public opinion will change.
Shalit’s first public words came during an interview conducted in Egypt after he spent more than five years in a Gaza jail cell. During the interview he said, “I always believed that the day would come that I would find myself outside prison.” His words confirmed his trust in the Israeli government to secure his release. While wasting away in an isolated basement room at an unknown location in Gaza, Shalit was relying on an unwritten but verbal government commitment to do whatever it takes to bring Israeli soldiers home.
At a press conference on October 18th, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “I always knew that if I or one of my comrades fell captive, the government of Israel would do its utmost to return us home, and as Prime Minister, I have now carried this out.” In regard to Israel’s mandatory army service, Netanyahu talked about soldiers being sent out to defend the nation. He said, “I believe that mutual responsibility is no mere slogan. It is a cornerstone of our existence here.”
Israel prides itself in sanctifying life while its enemies celebrate death. But, the government has no clear policy on how to deal with kidnappings. Prisoner exchanges are not new to Israel. One of the most controversial exchanges was the 1985 Jibril deal. At that time, 1,150 terrorists were released in return for 3 kidnapped Israeli soldiers. In the Shalit deal, the terrorists that have been released reportedly pose a much greater security risk to the Jewish State.
There’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in Israel between the government’s commitment to its soldiers and its responsibility to protect its citizens from terror. Statistics show that since 1950, 2443 people (including 119 non-Israelis, tourists, and foreign workers) have been murdered in terror attacks. Almost 1,000 people have been killed and 17,000 injured since the Second Intifada (Uprising), which began in 2000. Terrorists who have been released early from prison, and who have returned to terror activity, are responsible for taking the lives of more than 180 people in Israel since 2004.
While this produces fear within the Israeli population as to what the future will bring in regard to this current prisoner exchange, there is a key issue that Israeli government leaders have not addressed adequately: Where are the laws that ensure that future hostage deals will not become prey to the release of terrorists?
Citizens are claiming that this current exchange not only threatens Israel’s national security, but it also emboldens global terrorists to intensify their efforts throughout the world. Khaled Maashal, the head of Hamas, has already declared there will be attempts at more kidnappings. It can be expected that these kidnappings will not just be attempted by Hamas, which has been legitimized through this current exchange, but also by other terrorist governments and organizations that are intent on conducting jihad against free and democratic nations.
In the eyes of the Arab world, the exchange on October 18th made Israel look weak and vulnerable. Perhaps, knowing this, the Israeli government warned Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that while it has agreed not to target released prisoners returning home to their families, it will target them, eventually, if they renew their terror activity against the Jewish state. This is one of the ways Israel is attempting to restore its deterrence policy, which many believe has been compromised by the Shalit deal.
The question remains that after five years of negotiations, why did Netanyahu decide now was the time to finalize the agreement for Shalit’s release? Here are some possible reasons:
(1) The prisoner exchange boasted the morale among soldiers in Israel’s Defense Forces. Since military service is mandatory, the IDF wants to assure that its soldiers will not try to avoid serving in the armed forces in the event of a future war. The high cost paid for Shalit’s release proved to Israeli soldiers that, despite the time they might have to spend in captivity, the government is committed to bringing them home.
(2) The Netanyahu government felt there was a small window of opportunity to assure Shalit’s freedom from captivity. The current instability in the Middle East, fueled by the Arab revolution which began in the spring of 2011, has caused a deterioration in relations between Israel and its neighbors. Netanyahu could not count on Shalit’s captors to keep him in Gaza. Netanyahu was concerned that if Shalit ended up being transferred to Egypt, he would eventually disappear. A precedent for this is that Israel lost contact with Israeli POW Ron Arad. He was captured 25 years ago and is still missing. The Israeli government did not want that to happen to Shalit.
(3) There’s a current stalemate between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The current prisoner exchange weakened Abbas, politically, and strengthened Hamas. Netanyahu didn’t want to strengthen Hamas but he was looking for a way to get Abbas back to the peace negotiating table. Since Palestinian prisoners have now been released from Israeli jails, this also weakens Abbas’ bargaining position. The Quartet (the U.S., U.N., E.U., and Russia) will be meeting with Abbas soon, and will expect him to enter into direction negotiations with Israel.
(4) The Shalit deal strengthened Netanyahu’s coalition. Only three government ministers voted against the agreement. The Prime Minister’s popularity has increased, and he has shored up support for his government. But, one of Netanyahu’s government partners has been vocal in his opposition. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman voted against the prisoner swap, claiming that Israel should have launched a rescue operation into Gaza despite the lack of intelligence on exactly where Shalit was being held hostage. Lieberman declared that Israel should not have negotiated with terrorists.
According to reports, the deal was sealed only recently. For security reasons, Netanyahu had demanded that senior Hamas leaders, including arch-murderers, remain in prison. He also demanded that the majority of those designated for release be expelled or remain outside the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). This was in order to impede the ability of these terrorists to attack Israeli citizens again. Hamas eventually backed down from its opposition to Netanyahu’s demands which paved the way for the current agreement.
The Israeli government showed strength in the eyes of the general public by paying such a high ransom to set Shalit free from captivity. It was an acknowledgement of the sacrifice one Israeli soldier makes when he defends the Jewish state. But, it also showed the world just how vulnerable Israel is. And, Israel’s enemies are already planning the next kidnaping. What will be the price tag if they succeed again?
Now, is the time for the Israeli government to set some standards in place that will not put its soldiers at risk, but will also not compromise the security of the state. There needs to be a policy in place that doesn’t allow Israel’s justice system to be undermined, while at the same time, assures those who defend the country that their protection and safety is of utmost concern to the government and to the nation’s citizens.
Netanyahu was the first government minister to greet Shalit on Israel soil. He told Shalit’s father, Noam, “I have brought your son back home.” At the October 18th press conference Netanyahu mentioned that Shalit was released from captivity right before the Israeli holiday, Simchat Torah, which follows the Feast of Succot (Tabernacles). Speaking about the upcoming Sabbath weekly Torah portion, Netanyahu quoted from Isaiah Chapter 42, and also mentioned Jeremiah 31:17. It is these words that can bring assurance to the Israeli public that their lives are in the hands of the God of Israel who is continually there as a source of guidance and help to them in times of trouble.
"I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles (nations); To open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison; those who is in darkness from the prison house." Isaiah 42:6-7
"There is hope in your future, says the Lord; that your children shall come back to their own border." Jeremiah 31:17
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues in Israel and the nations.
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.