Jun 23 2010

The Prisoner. Part 1

Published by at 12:30 am under Rediscovering Israel

Gilad Shalit is watching the World Cup. At least, that’s what his captors are telling the rest of the world.

No one can know for certain, but I guess the Hamas propaganda department thinks this will demonstrate the generous hospitality of their genocidal movement. It’s no Hilton, but you don’t get sports on satellite at a Budget 8 Motel.

It is four years since Shalit was snatched by a Palestinian hit squad through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel. It’s a long time – particularly spent in the company of Islamist fanatics known for using power drills and crowbars on their own people.

From the beginning, I felt a real horror at Shalit’s predicament. Not least because the images of him on television and newspapers in those first weeks in 2006 reminded me of another skinny Jew in army fatigues. I served as an army reservist with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles infantry many years ago. I could see in the lenses of Shalit’s glasses a reflection of my own self that might have been, had I ever been taken prisoner on some distant battlefield (Some of my colleagues in the battalion ended up serving in the former Yugoslavia as peacekeepers, risking their lives to stop Serbs, Bosnians and Croats from killing each other).

Redemption and Choosing the Lesser Evil
Despite my heartfelt sympathy for Shalit, I’ve never had much sympathy for the idea of a prisoner exchange to secure his release. How do you give in to terrorists’ demands without giving them an incentive to keep doing it?

I was surprised to find myself in opposition to a majority of Israeli society on this. Most seem to favor a negotiated release that will most likely involve trading hundreds, perhaps thousands of prisoners for Shalit’s freedom.

“Israelis are deeply divided on this,” my guide noted while looking at Shalit’s face on a billboard along the road. Our guide had served with the paratroopers in the 2008 war in Lebanon and knew quite well the danger of being captured by the other side. “It’s very painful for us. But Jews have a strong need deep in our souls to do whatever we can to redeem captives.”

This stems in no small part from the historical founding myth of a Jewish nation that itself arose out of captivity in Egypt. But it is also part of a Jewish tradition going back to the scholar Maimonides, who wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and collected the money to get them back.

And of course there is a practical military argument for going to extreme, even absurd lengths to get back captives: if soldiers fear they’ll be on their own if taken prisoner, they may refrain from moving too quickly into enemy territory.

But what about giving terrorists an incentive to kidnap more Israelis. “Look, it’s not like Hamas and the rest of them are ever going to stop trying to get us,” my guide says with a shrug. “They’ll keep trying no matter what. Not negotiating doesn’t keep us more or less safe. The IDF keeps us safe. Our own security measures keep us safe, and for the most part, they’re working.”

To an extent, you can’t argue with that logic. The time when Israelis endured a suicide bombing or other outrage on a weekly basis is already a fading memory. Controversial measures like checkpoints and the infamous security “wall” may keep Palestinians and international human rights advocates in a perpetual frenzy, but bombs aren’t getting into discos and pizza parlors anymore.

I’m still not quite convinced. The problem of trading Shalit or any individual Israeli for hundreds of Palestinians is one of perception to outsiders.

I’m aware of the historical Jewish tradition of redemption. In that sense, it shows a generosity of spirit and perhaps even a higher ethical standard. But outsiders, most Canadians included, won’t see it that way.

In fact, any such lopsided trade would seem to provide evidence of Israel as a deeply unethical, unlawful rogue state. Let me explain

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