The Price of Freedom: The Gilad Shalit Prisoner Exchange
By Karin Gold
On the night of October 17th 2011, I sat down at my computer and tried to find whatever news I could find on the release of Gilad Shalit. While attempting to find a news website that could verify the rumors of Shalit’s return home, I called my mother to see if she had heard any- thing from family and friends. You know how they say that everyone is connected through six degrees of separation? Well, in Israel it is four or less. My mom’s friend’s daughter grew up with Gilad’s sister. These few degrees of separation make it very hard to hear about something as monumental as this and not care or be involved. As an Israeli living in the US, it was difficult to explain this piece of history to people here. I would say something along the lines of, “Gilad Shalit is coming home! A soldier that was captured over five years ago is finally coming home! In exchange for 1,027 prisoners, we are getting him back alive!” The most common response to this was, “1,027? Is that even worth it? What’s so special about him anyway?” Hopefully, in reading this, you will under- stand why this is an important piece of history, and why he is special. Not just to me, but to all of Israel.
According to H a’aretz and mfa.gov.il, it was early morning on June 25th, 2006 when Hamas militants crossed into Israel through an un- derground tunnel near the Kerem Shalom border crossing. About eight militants infiltrated an Israeli army post and attacked a tank stationed there. Four Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers were in the tank; two were killed, one wounded and Shalit was taken hostage at gunpoint. In addition, two Palestinian militants were killed during the attack. After the attack, the militant squad made their way back into Gaza with Sha- lit as their hostage. This was the first incident of a live captured Israeli soldier since Nachshon Wachsman in 1994, who was killed six days after his capture.
In February 2008, Shalit’s captors requested the release of approxi- mately 1,300 Palestinian prisoners. Some of these prisoners were high- ranking members of the terrorist organization, Fatah. Initially it was unclear whether or not Shalit was alive. The only proof of his well-being were three letters in his handwriting. These letters were examined extensively in order to confirm their authenticity. Ha’aretz also stated that during August 2008, Hamas periodically released small bits of information regarding Shalit’s health. Israel continuously attempted to make deals in exchange for his safe return.
Finally on October 2nd, 2009, Israel received a three-minute proof- of-life video clip of Shalit in exchange for twenty female Palestinian prisoners, according to The Jerusalem Post and The New York Times. In the video, Shalit wore his IDF uniform and read a pre-written message urging the Israeli government to finalize the deals for his liberation. In order to prove his good health, Shalit was standing up straight. He was also reading an Arabic newspaper published on September 14th 2009, proving that the video was up to date. Between 2009 and 2011, the Israeli government and the kidnappers continued to negotiate.
With the help of mediators from Germany and Egypt, the Israeli government and the kidnappers reached an agreement on October 11th 2011. They decided that a healthy Gilad Shalit could return to his home in exchange for 1,027 prisoners, mainly Arab-Israelis and Pales- tinians. Many of these prisoners were serving several life sentences for the crimes they had committed against the state of Israel. The first half of the exchange deal took place on Tuesday October 18th 2011. Israel released 477 of the prisoners while Hamas transferred Gilad Shalit to the mediation common ground of Cairo, Egypt. According to H a’aretz, Egyptian officials medically evaluated Shalit and sent him to an inter- view with the Egyptian channel Nile TV. After the interview, a helicop- ter transported Shalit to the Tel Nof Airbase, where he met again with his family and the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after almost five and a half years. It was evident upon his return that Gilad Shalit was overall in good health, albeit pale and thin. He now resides in his home with his parents in Mitzpe Hila in the Western Galilee.
According toThe Jerusalem Post, this transaction wasn’t completely accepted by all Israelis as only about 79% were in favor of the exchange. Those opposed were generally found to be the victims of the terrorist attacks that the released prisoners were involved in. Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor of political psychology at Tel-Aviv University told The Jerusa- lem Post, “Here we see the basic dilemmas between the individual and the collective, and we see victim pitted against victim. Gilad Shalit is a victim who was violently kidnapped, in a way that Israelis do not consider to be a normative means of struggle. Therefore, one side says, he should be returned at any price. But the families of those killed in terrorist attacks and the people who were wounded in those attacks are victims, too, and they say that no price should be paid to the murders. And it is truly a dilemma, because no side is right, and no side is wrong.”
Whether this decision was smart or not is clearly up for debate. Some say it wasn’t worth the cost of 1,027 convicted terrorists, consider- ing their past histories. Many Israelis are worried that although some of the released prisoners were exiled from the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories, they will return to a life of terrorism. After all, 1,027 people can still be quite an army, capable of many things. Although the state of Israel took this into consideration, it decided to stick to its moral code and military rules and bring every soldier, dead or alive, back to their homeland. In an editorial, The Jerusalem Post stated, “No modern government has the legal right to free terrorists in exchange for its own kidnapped citizens, military or civilian. Under long-standing international law, every state has a primary obligation to protect its citizens.” As of now, the real question is this: Is it worth it for the state of Israel to risk its citizens’ safety for one captured soldier?
The Israelis in favor of the prisoner exchange claim that it is only fair for the state of Israel to risk its safety for his return. In Israel, join- ing the military is mandatory for everyone at the age of 18 (with few exceptions). Therefore, the 79% in favor of the exchange believe that it is only fair for the nation-state to protect their soldiers’ precious lives. Because Gilad Shalit had no choice in whether or not he would fight for his country, Israel should be responsible for his safety. If enlisting in the the army had not been mandatory, everyone’s feelings would be very different.
Personally, I believe that every country should take care of its citizens. As an Israeli, it is comforting to know that while serving in the army, your country will do what it can to keep you safe; however, as a civilian, it is also disconcerting that in this exchange, you are not protected. Whether or not I believe the exchange was fair is quite the grey area. Having lived in the United States for so long, I do not face the same risks as the Israelis who still live there. That is exactly why my views are blurry, even to me. But even though I do not like the risks associated with the exchange, I do believe that the mere fact that a successful exchange occurred could mean a new, and perhaps peaceful start for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Gilad was captured, he instantly became the face of every IDF soldier in Israel. His name was the name of every child and of every teenager serving their country. He became the son of all of Israel. He
is my brother, my cousin and my friend and I am so happy he is home. Before October 18th, 2011 the name Gilad Shalit haunted the homes of every Israeli and was a name filled with sadness, fear and helplessness. After that day, his name means a start of something new: a hope for peace.
Published on page 12 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.