Estimates range between 6,000 and 11,000 security prisoners being held by Israel. This is one of those details that officials are not inclined to publish. Whatever the truth, you can can reduce both the lower and upper estimates by about 1,027 scheduled to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
Almost the whole of Israeli news has been concerned with the details of the exchange since an agreement was announced on Tuesday evening. According to what we are hearing, Shalit will be in Israel this coming Tuesday. Assuming, among other contingencies, that the Supreme Court will rule against those families of terror victims and others who are petitioning it to reject the agreement.
President Shimon Peres will grant pardons to those prisoners included in the deal; a group of 450 or so will be transferred to Gaza or elsewhere; Shalit will go to Egypt and then to Israel. The reception here is likely to be overwhelming, but hopefully short. Individuals in the know, including Israelis who had been held as prisoners for a prolonged period, are warning that Shalit will need quiet and most likely extensive treatment.
Is it right to turn over hundreds of convicted murderers for the sake of one soldier?
This is not the first time Israel has traded its prisoners for those held by someone else, or even turned over convicted murderers for the return of dead bodies.
So apparently it is right.
The Palestinian view is that individuals held by Israel are prisoners of war, and all ought to be released now that the latest intifada is over. Palestinians assert, with some support among others, that they have little beyond terror to employ against the impressive but no less deadly weaponry of Israel.
If all is fair in war, why not the release of prisoners, despite their having been found guilty of the most heinous crimes? If not now, then perhaps as part of a peace agreement.
Some of those who reject the idea of "negotiating with terrorists" already have deleted this message.
Israel may be the country that has paid the heaviest price for what is widely called terror. Yet it has shown time and again that it negotiates directly with terrorists or indirectly via third parties, and pays a price in living captives or dead bodies in exchange for living or dead Israelis.
Decisions do not come easily. This particular deal required 5 years of negotiations. Ultimately Israeli negotiators refused to release prisoners who ranked as unavailable for trade on criteria employed by security personnel and ranking politicians. We can speculate that those criteria involve the likelihood of the individual returning to a campaign of terror, the viciousness of acts committed, and the time spent in prison.
As in previous cases, there is a movement to formally change the arrangements so that "next time" Israel will be tougher in negotiations. Some Knesset Members are proposing legislation to outlaw anything more than one for one exchanges.
The commentators reporting on that movement seemed hard pressed to avoid ridicule. They limited themselves to reciting the history of exchanges, and saying that public pressure for future exchanges would likely to be as irresistible as it has been in this most recent instance and in the past.
There is a long history of Jewish communities collecting resources for the release of Jews held captive. It was a device used, among other purposes, for the sake of traveling merchants who found themselves in the hands of pirates.
According to Maimonides:
Pidyon Shevuyim (ransom of prisoners) takes precedence . . . There is no greater mitzvah than Pidyon Shevuyim, for the problems of the captive include the problems of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and who is in mortal danger. (Mishneh Torah (Laws of Gifts for the Poor, 8:10,11).
This principle might have made Jews more likely to be targeted for captive than other travellers, but also might have made brigands more likely to keep the Jews alive for the sake of the ransom.
Individuals objecting to the payment of blood money should consider the success of Somali pirates, who have financed some impressive armaments and personal life styles as a result of their activity. The current issue of The Economist includes an article about the temptations--and problems--in arming merchant ships sailing in threatened waters. http://www.economist.com/
If the dominant Palestinian leadership--whoever that comes to be--ever gets its act together enough to approach negotiations with Israel prepared to actually give and take for the sake of peace rather than simply make its demands, one of the items on the table is likely to be the release of Palestinian prisoners. No doubt there will be arguments around that table, as well as in Israeli media and among ordinary citizens about the price to be paid for peace.
If that situation occurs while these fingers are still able to tap out the story, we are likely to see again that there are no absolutes in law or politics. The deal made will depend on the price demanded and the deal on offer, as well as the assurances provided (perhaps with the help of third party guarantors) that each side will actually deliver what it promises.
"Terror" is a label that carries some weight. Israel has employed tough measures against Gaza due to the widespread designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Laws of war, to the extent that they affect activities, are said to be outdated due to the activity of non-governmental organizations engaging in violence, which it is politically incorrect in some quarters to label "terror" and in other quarters to label "Islamic."
Prominent among the factors preventing an adjustment in the laws to deal with non-governmental violence is the weight in international forums of governments that are friendly those those practicing what others call terror.
In all of this muddle is the issue of negotiating with terrorists, or negotiating with them indirectly via third parties, and paying the prices necessary to free prisoners, obtaining bodies, or other agreements.
It is not as respectable as haggling with a seller over a non-human commodity, but it has some of the same features.