'Despite pitfalls, Israel should strike deal for Schalit'

Analysts tell Post Israel's right to demand sacrifices from its soldiers is conditioned on a commitment to them.

Gilad Schalit 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A prisoner exchange with Hamas to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit would undermine Israel's deterrence, free dangerous terrorists who will return to plotting attacks, and give hope to remaining security prisoners that future kidnappings will set them free as well. But despite the pitfalls, Israel must proceed with the deal, a security analyst who spent years researching Hamas prisoners says. Lt.-Col. (res.) Anat Berko, author of The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers - frequented maximum security facilities to interview Hamas terrorists. On June 26, 2006, the day Schalit was abducted just outside the Gaza Strip, Berko was interviewing female security prisoners. They became excited upon hearing of the kidnapping. "It was clear to them there would be a deal and they would be set free," Berko, a visiting professor at George Washington University, recalled during an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. In the same vein, Hamas co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had told Berko in prison in 1996 that their next meeting would take place in Gaza. Three months later, he was released. "Even those with 40 life sentences are hopeful, because they clearly have a feeling that they are in an Israeli prison for a limited time. In the meantime, they develop a routine, attend political and religious lessons, read books, and take part in Open University courses. Some receive Jordanian higher education qualifications," Berko said. Despite their good conditions, security prisoners do not modify their attitude to Israel in jail, but rather become more hostile, she said. "Terrorism for them is a life career, beginning with rock throwing and ending with car bombings. This won't end when they're released. Many will go back to the terror industry," Berko said. "That's what they talk about in prison." Nevertheless, Berko, who is based at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, is adamant that Hamas terrorists must be released in exchange for Schalit. "Israel must do all it can to release soldiers it sends out to defend the borders. This is a moral duty," she said. "This is our soldier." At the same time, Israel should set tough conditions, and "pay as little as possible" to free Schalit. "The families of Hamas prisoners also want them home," Berko added. According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, it was a big mistake to end Operation Cast Lead before securing Schalit's release. "The [proposed] deal is a disaster for Israel," Amidror, program director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said on Sunday. "We should have never have reached this stage," he added. "The cabinet has no option now but to vote in favor of the deal. But it has pushed itself into a corner," said Amidror, a former commander of the IDF's National Defense College and its Staff and Command College. "Israel must have the strength to demand that its soldiers make sacrifices for its safety. But it's right to demand that sacrifice is conditioned on a commitment to its soldiers. The minute the commitment is violated, as was the case when Operation Cast Lead ended without Schalit's release, the state loses its right to demand sacrifices," he said. Yoram Schweitzer, director of the program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said the prisoner exchange should proceed both because Israel's ethical framework left the government with no choice but to approve it, and because Schalit's captivity has been like a bone stuck in Israel's throat, choking off efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement with Hamas and straining ties with Egypt. "The bottom line is yes, the deal should go ahead," Schweitzer said. "The value of his life means that we must return prisoners to retrieve our lost soldier. We must take the consequences. "Speaking from a cold analytical perspective, Schalit's captivity has bound Israel in many ways. The issue of opening the crossings with Gaza has been tied to Schalit's release. Israel's interest lies in opening the passages, in order to reach a negotiated cease-fire agreement. Schalit's captivity constitutes a strategic obstacle to reaching such an agreement," he said. "Rockets are being fired because we haven't completed any agreement [with Hamas]," he said. "So tactically, Schalit's captivity has been a huge obstacle, which must be removed by bringing him home." Acknowledging the cons of a prisoner swap, Schweitzer said there could be no doubting the moral boost Hamas would receive, enabling them "to claim a victory. Fatah will be weakened too," Schweitzer said, although the release of hundreds of Hamas men will not change the balance of physical power. At the same time, future Israeli soldiers and their parents will know that their government is prepared to do whatever is necessary to secure their release in the event of future kidnappings, Schweitzer said, adding that this "will increase social cohesion, motivation to serve in the army, and will have a positive influence on mothers sending their sons to the IDF." Militarily, too, Schalit's captivity may have hindered Israel. "If Israel knew where he was in Gaza, that area would not have been bombed during Cast Lead," he said. The Egyptian-mediated cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas have been badly affected by Schalit's captivity, Schweitzer said, adding that this in turn has increased tensions between Jerusalem and Cairo. "It is causing friction with the Egyptians. Look at the Amos Gilad affair [the recent dispute between Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert], which is connected to Schalit. The Egyptians want to pursue their interests, [by mediating a cease-fire], and are angered by what they see as Israel's refusal to pay Hamas's price for Schalit." Nevertheless, Schweitzer added that Israel should not pay "any price" for its soldiers. "The Schalit family is also saying this," he said.