“It’s good that you’ve returned home,” former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Gilad Schalit 10 years ago today when he landed in a military helicopter at the Tel Nof military base after his release from five years of Hamas captivity.
“We have waited for you for many years,” Netanyahu told the young man, then 25 years old.
Gilad, who wore black glasses and an IDF uniform, saluted Netanyahu, who in turn hugged him.
At that moment it seemed as if Netanyahu’s embrace represented the warm sentiments of a unified nation, jubilant at the return of a hostage, on a celebratory day that involved a motorcade to his Galilee home town of Mitzpe Hilla.
In reality, the emotions of that day overwhelmed and hid a debate that had divided the Israeli public during Schalit’s five years in captivity and that continues today: what price should the nation pay for its soldiers or citizens captured by the enemy?
In Schalit’s case, this is especially felt because Israel had agreed to a prisoner swap that involved the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including those responsible for killing Israelis in terror attacks.
The Schalit deal was not the first prisoner swap to involve such a high price or the release of terrorists.
In 1983, Israel made a deal with the Palestinian Liberation Organization to free six Israeli soldiers captured during the Lebanon War in exchange for the release of 4,700 Palestinians and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
Two years later, in what became known as the Jibril deal, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners in an agreement with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for release of three soldiers also captured in Lebanon, including Hezi Shai, who until his release had been believed to have been killed in battle.
Such deals as well as the Schalit release were a testament to a long-held army principle that the IDF does not abandon its soldiers on the battlefield. Schalit’s release in specific was also due to the personal determination of his family that fought an intense diplomatic and public campaign to secure this release.
It was a battle strengthened by the evidence that Gilad was alive, and the knowledge that failure to make a deal was, in effect, the issuance of a death sentence against a young man who, like most young Israelis, was conscripted into the army.
Gilad was kidnapped on the Gaza border in June 2006, just two months shy of his 20th birthday. His story was a compelling one for many Israelis, who could imagine their own child kidnapped in such a way and who would have wanted the government to turn over every stone to bring that child home safely.
Such deals also strengthen Israel’s self-image as a nation, one that values the lives of its citizens to such an extent that it would travel around the world to rescue them or will free a high number of prisoners to save the lives of one of its citizens.
But by the time Gilad saluted Netanyahu, the county had also learned the underside of such deals: that for every life saved, another would likely be lost in a terror attack launched by those freed from Israeli jails.
The issue had turned from one that was solely about the price a nation would pay to save a life, to a Solomonic dilemma about whether to exchange the life of one victim that was known for that of a yet unknown victim or even victims.
Although each hostage situation is a narrative on its own, each one exists within a pendulum of reaction and counteraction that revolves around three principles.
The first lesson dates back to the 1985 Jibril deal, which included prisoners that went on to organize the 1987 intifada and highlighted the danger of prisoner releases.
The second lesson involves navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. He was known to have been alive for two years before he disappeared in 1988, and his fate remains unknown.
It is believed that due to public backlash from the Jibril deal, Israeli politicians hesitated to conclude a swap for Arad’s release, a delay that ultimately doomed the soldier.
The third lesson stemmed from the 1994 kidnapping of IDF soldier Nachshon Wachsman by Hamas, which held him in a location just outside of Jerusalem. An IDF commando raid to free him failed. The kidnappers killed Wachsman and the head of the rescue unit, Captain Nir Poraz.
IN SHORT, from the moment there is a captive situation, Israel is in a lose-lose situation. Both the rescue attempt and the absence of a swap could lead to the death of the hostage, and a swap could lead to violent upheaval or death.
Schalit’s father, Noam, in a rare interview with Channel 12 in advance of this week’s anniversary of his son’s release, said that there were many Israeli politicians who had wished that his son had returned in a flag-draped coffin.
He explained that it was an oversimplification to blame terrorism against Israelis on released prisoners, noting that others would have carried out terror attacks if the prisoners had remained in jail.
Just as opponents of the deal predicted, however, a small number of those released in 2011 were involved in terror attacks, including the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in 2014 that helped sparked spark the Gaza war that summer.
The continued conflict around Schalit’s release has helped prompt his family to remain out of the limelight, but it has not quieted the conflict.
This year’s anniversary falls amid talks of a new prisoner swap to secure the release of the bodies of two IDF soldiers believed killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul, and to free two Israeli civilians held captive by Hamas in Gaza, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.
Top Israeli leaders from Netanyahu to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have pledged to secure the release of the Israeli hostages, but to date, they remain in captivity, and the Gold and Shaul families still have no closure on the possible deaths of their sons.
The campaign by Hadar’s family has failed to gain much traction, and his mother, Lead Goldin, stood with only a small number of supporters outside Bennett’s office in Jerusalem on Sunday morning demanding action.
“Bennett, it’s your shift,” said Goldin as the government met. “It’s your responsibility.”
Should Bennett manage to succeed where Netanyahu failed, the debate about the cost of a prisoner swap that has been fairly dormant will once more take center stage.