Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 9 News List

A thousand in exchange for one

A gleam of hope arises from the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap — the Palestinians might start cooperating with their enemy

By A.B. Yehoshua

Illustration: June Hsu

The celebrations in Israel over the release of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit come after the Israeli government concluded that diplomatic rarity, an agreement with Hamas. It is as if the government brought back an Israeli who had been sent to Mars.

Of course, other Israeli soldiers and civilians have been held captive in Arab states or abducted by terrorist organizations and other militant groups over the years. And Israel has been willing in the past to barter hundreds or thousands of detainees in exchange for the release of just a few of its citizens. However, for as long as I can remember, popular enthusiasm has never been so overwhelmingly supportive of such a deal as it is now, with the joy virtually exploding across the country after the news of Shalit’s pending release began to circulate.

One reason for this outpouring of enthusiasm is clear: the Shalit family’s remarkable ability to keep interest in his cause alive throughout the five years since his abduction. Indeed, the Israeli public consistently supported the idea of the government reaching agreement with Hamas for the soldier’s release.

Many Israelis, from all social classes, joined the campaign for Shalit’s release. Demonstrations and meetings were organized. Posters were hung everywhere to remember the number of days of his ordeal. However, the Shalit family is given the most credit: They left their home in a small village in Galilee to camp out for more than a year near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, reminding the Israeli public of the victim’s suffering and pushing the government to accept Hamas’ conditions.

However, despite deep popular sympathy, not a few Israelis — on both the left and the right — opposed the exchange of one soldier for a thousand or more Palestinian prisoners, some of whom perpetrated terrorist attacks that killed dozens of people. Some consider the Palestinian prisoners’ release a mistake, legally and ethically, and a shocking injustice to the families of their victims. Others, more numerous, deplore the disparity in numbers in the swap. Unlike the first group, they would be ready to accept the release of one Palestinian prisoner — even if he were responsible for the most brutal terrorist attack — but not a thousand of them.

However, there is another way to look at the disparity. Israel achieved remarkable victories in the wars fought against far more populous Arab countries in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Its soldiers are well trained and use advanced technologies and military abilities that are superior to those of the Arab countries — and far better than those of Palestinian militant groups. By demanding the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one soldier, Hamas is conceding the stark military reality of this imbalance: Thousands of their prisoners, fighting with knives, explosive belts and primitive rockets, are worth only one Israeli soldier.

Israel is, of course, resigned to its numerical inferiority, and will continue to train its soldiers in order to overcome this deficit. As a result, one prisoner in exchange for a thousand Palestinian prisoners is neither a humiliation nor a surrender, but an acceptable agreement that acknowledges, even on behalf of the enemy, the military capacity of Israeli soldiers.

There are also those who vigorously oppose the prisoner exchange with Hamas because some of the released prisoners will return to terrorism against Israel, as has happened after past exchanges. The release of one Israeli soldier in exchange for such men could therefore endanger many lives in the future.

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