This is the second part of an essay exploring the tragedy of Israeli IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit, held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza, and the larger challenges of prisoner exchanges and redemption of captives
When I was growing up, I would occasionally read in a newspaper that the Soviet Union had granted an amnesty to several hundred or even thousands of prisoners. Occasionally, I noticed that other thuggish regimes around the world would do the same thing. This is still a fairly common practice – in 2009, the Tajik President announced an amnesty for half of his prison population.
Even at that early age, I knew this wasn’t how things were supposed to work. You commit a crime. You’re caught. The judge sentences you. You go to prison.
That’s how it works in societies that have rule of law. Even in societies that aren’t democratic, the rulers don’t want to see thieves, rapists and murderers let loose to commit more crimes.
Why were these weird regimes letting go of these prisoners, then? Well, I learned that in undemocratic societies, you can go to jail for things that aren’t really crimes in places like Canada. Their prisons are filled with all sorts of people who really shouldn’t be there.
You’re a journalist and write something scandalous (but true) about an apparatchik? You go to jail. Your wife has caught the amorous attention of the police chief? You go to jail. You say something bad about the Dear Leader on your private telephone to your friend? You and your friend both go to jail.
Of course, it costs money to run prisons and there are only so many prison cells. Besides, a short stint in a moldy dungeon is all that’s required to ensure that most people behave. So when an effective police state results in prisons so overcrowded that the guards are going to be overwhelmed, then it’s time to grant an amnesty for the masses. Long live the generous Dear Leader!
The corrupt prison system defecates its assimilated and cowed population so as to make room for the next batch of political opponents, homosexuals, ethnic minorities and other inconvenient types.
This is how most educated people view prison amnesties. This is why these sorts of mass prisoner releases don’t happen in places like Canada, where democracy and the rule of law are as strong as anywhere.
Now, back to the idea of trading Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners. Hamas takes as a starting negotiating position that this one soldier is worth 1000 Palestinian prisoners on a list, in addition to all female and young prisoners.
The Israeli response? “Let’s make a deal.” Not that deal, mind you. That’s too many prisoners. Besides, some of the people on the list have blood on their hands. This guy stabbed a toddler. This other guy was a bomb maker for suicide squads…
But these are mere negotiating ploys for a process that will take place behind closed doors. Long story short, the Israeli state is willing to make a deal involving large masses of Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier. There are recent precedents for this, like when Israelis traded 6,000 Arab POWs for four Israeli prisoners taken in the Six Day War, or when Lebanon received 4,500 Lebanese for six Israelis.
So now people from other countries like Canada start noticing this weird situation. They may not be aware of Jews’ tradition of “redemption”.
All they know is that Israel is preparing to let large numbers of Palestinian prisoners go free, negating a lawful process that supposedly provided justice to their victims. And they’ve seen these sort of mass releases before, typically by governments that rule by force and terror.
And they will start to ask uncomfortable questions. “If Israel is going to let all of these prisoners go in a deal, then why can’t they just go now? What was the real reason you were holding them? Is it simply because they are Palestinians and you want to terrorize them?
“Doesn’t that make Israel an Apartheid state? And if you’re arresting Palestinians as bargaining chips in the event that Israelis are taken hostage, doesn’t that mean that an Israeli prison cell and a makeshift Hamas dungeon in a basement have the exact same level of legitimacy?”
Of course, all of these questions can be answered in a way that provides reasonable legal and ethical cover for the Israeli state. You could go over the case records of Palestinian prisoners including the crimes they committed, one by one. You can point out that the policing arm of a sovereign state is very different from the sort of illegitimate terrorist raiders who indiscriminately snatched Shalit. You could point out that Israel allows visits by the Red Cross to prisoners, while Hamas has refused to honour this basic tenet of international law.
But these answers are complicated and they take time.
In the meantime, as a result of a laudable effort to get back a hostage from psychotic and genocidal extremists, Israel is the one coming out looking like a Stalinist thugocracy.
It’s horribly unfair. But that’s just how a prisoner trade looks, at a time when Israel is already in dire danger of becoming an international pariah state.
Israelis will continue to do what is in their own best interests, regardless of how if may look to outsiders. I get the feeling that in the end, Israelis will negotiate with their sworn enemies to win Shalit’s freedom. I know how bad it looks, but they’ll do it anyway. They can’t help it. In a sense, all Israelis are prisoners of conscience.