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The prisoner exchange imbroglio

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It has been reported that Israel is once again engaged in negotiations with Hamas on the issue of prisoner exchanges.

There is no certainty whether the three Israelis—Ethiopian born Avera Mengistu and the Bedouin captives Hisham al-Sayed and Jumaa Abu Ghanima—all of whom entered Gaza of their own accord and allegedly suffer from mental illness—are still alive. Hamas has refused to provide video documentation even though Israel had offered to release several Palestinian prisoners in return. Israel also seeks the remains of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul from Hamas in order to enable their families to have closure and give their loved ones an honorable burial.

Profoundly emotional factors are involved. It is an ancient Jewish tradition to prioritize pidyon shvuim—the redemption of captives. It reflects the compassion and humanity that has characterized the Jewish people over centuries of persecution and dispersion. The credo of the IDF is never to forsake its sons on the battlefield, which includes a moral and ethical obligation to do everything possible to bring home its soldiers—dead or alive.

The IDF is a citizens’ army; every parent identifies with the families of abducted soldiers and tends to support any compromise that will return them home.

Despite initial declarations not to capitulate to outrageous demands, the Israeli government has until now—in response to enormous public pressure—ultimately succumbed to Hamas blackmail. Since 1948, Israel has released over 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for 19 captive Israelis. In October 2011, with the support of 80% of the population, 1,027 terrorists—including the most vicious and barbaric serial murderers—were released in exchange for captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel has suffered harrowing experiences in relation to previous exchanges and paid a heavy price for its grotesquely disproportionate concessions.

Many of those released returned to terrorism. One of them, Mahmoud Qawasmeh, financed and dispatched the murderers of the kidnapped three teenage boys in 2014. Another, Yahya Sinwar, is currently the fanatical leader of Hamas in Gaza, determined to “liberate” Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

In 2012, a committee formed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, recommended the adoption of regulations designed to ensure that future hostage deals are not determined by public emotion and media hysteria, which led to grossly inequitable swaps with terrorists in previous exchanges. Regrettably, these recommendations remained just that and were never institutionalized as law by the Knesset. The argument was that if implemented, future Israeli captives would be killed immediately.

Paying any price is unsustainable, reduces Israel’s deterrent power and endangers national security. Israel, as a state under siege, cannot allow itself to be subjected to such extortion by terrorists. It is not applied in any other country.

It is not merely that Hamas is regarded as heroic for achieving such grotesquely distorted swaps. It provides our enemies with the evidence that kidnapped hostages are Israel’s Achilles’ heel and creates an incentive for further kidnappings. It enables them to demonstrate that terror is infinitely more effective than negotiations in achieving their objectives. It also creates an environment in which incarcerated terrorists remain optimistic that, ultimately, Israel will be forced to release them, at which time they will return as heroes rewarded with generous remuneration.

Their lust for our destruction is insatiable and continued capitulation to disproportionate demands will inevitably culminate in greater tragedies.

Before entering any negotiations, Hamas leader Sinwar is demanding release of all 60 prisoners still under arrest for reverting to terrorist activity since their release in the Shalit exchange. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has rightly refused, stressing that Israel must not repeat the mistake of releasing Palestinian murderers in return for captives held by Hamas. He emphasized that those released for Shalit set the tone for Hamas in Gaza and returned to their former terrorist activity.

The defense minister’s remarks were in response to a passionate plea from Simcha Goldin, father of Hadar Golding whose remains have been held by Hamas since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. To his credit, Goldin has rejected initiatives which would yield disproportionate concessions to Hamas. Rather, he accused Lieberman of being “weak” and “cowardly” in not having forced Hamas to return the bodies of the soldiers so that their families could bury them and have closure. Lieberman said he accepted Goldin’s criticism and pledged to do his utmost to retrieve the soldiers’ remains, but not if this were to undermine Israel’s security or result in the death of more Israelis.

Lieberman’s comments were made following the resignation of Israeli negotiator Lior Lotan, allegedly because he felt he was given insufficient room to maneuver. He subsequently complained about Israeli weakness in its approach.

There have been other suggestions. The very least we should do is mount a full global campaign calling on the United Nations and human rights organizations to assume their responsibility in a compassionate and equitable manner. Amnesty International, which invests massive resources applying double standards to continuously depict Israel as a rogue state but glosses over Hamas atrocities, was obliged to condemn the kidnappings, but beyond an initial statement, has failed to pursue the matter

Some suggest more radical measures. Lotan, the former negotiator, recommended that Israel turn the tables on Hamas by capturing or arresting 200 prominent Hamas activists for every Israeli held. Others suggest that Israel should cease returning the bodies of Hamas terrorists to their relatives as well as drastically downgrade the living conditions and restrict the conjugal rights of jailed Hamas terrorists. Some even urge that the siege on Gaza be significantly intensified.

Opponents claim that such steps would serve to alienate global public opinion and some military sources fear that they would spark a renewal of hostilities.

It is dangerous for armchair critics not in full command of the facts to make dogmatic recommendations.

One cannot argue with bereaved parents whose children were killed or captured, but that does not mean that one must agree to their demands if that will compromise the security of the people of Israel. We must remain conscious of the fact that with Hamas we are dealing with barbarians who have repeatedly reiterated their intention to initiate hostilities against us at a time of their choosing. If we announce our objectives to the world, public opinion—not counting the views of the bleeding hearts—is likely to side with us.

Admittedly, this is not an easy decision. Releasing another large group of murderers must be resisted—but merely making speeches is also unacceptable.

Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt that “we will not allow significant development in the Gaza Strip … without securing the return of the missing IDF soldiers.”

So perhaps the decision-makers have come around to the view that the carrot-and-stick approach is worth trying.

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom



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