The Value of Even One Life

When it comes to prisoner exchanges, certain facts of life are quickly forgotten - both on the part of Israelis and Palestinians.

old couple cartoon 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
old couple cartoon 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
There’s a kind of collective amnesia in Israel when it comes to prisoner exchanges. Certain facts of life are quickly forgotten: Israel’s swaps with its neighbors have always been lopsided, such as when Israel returned more than 5,500 Egyptian soldiers after the 1956 Sinai campaign in return for four Israeli soldiers.
If critics are worried that freeing kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians is going to send the wrong message – the message that Israel is willing to release exponentially high numbers of prisoners to redeem even one soldier – well, that message was six decades old when Shalit was captured in 2006.
Forgotten, too, is that as recently as this summer, the people wanted Shalit returned so fervently that his image was emblazoned right next to the banners demanding social justice. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, were deemed either incompetent for missing opportunities to reach a deal, or indifferent to the suffering of an average Israeli family with a live son who’d been left to languish in captivity in Gaza, just a few miles over the border from home.
Included in this amnesia is a reluctance to face what it means to have an army that holds dear an ethos of never leaving a soldier behind, along with a promise to bring home his remains if necessary, even if it means trading live soldiers or militants, as Israel did when it received the remains of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in 2008. There is a beauty in this ethos and what it conveys about the value placed on even one life – or one family’s right to grieve. But it requires a problematic price to pay in the form of asymmetrical prisoner exchanges, and always has.
That the people wanted Gilad home is a given; that the price of his homecoming would be freedom for Palestinians responsible for the deaths of Israeli civilians was a fact the public wanted to forget.
Also unfortunate is the predictable punditry that has arisen in the deal’s wake. The primary form of analysis has turned the events into a definitive match on the Palestinian scorecard. Hamas-1, Fatah-0. This form of score-keeping is simplistic and reductionistic.
Palestinian political thinking is not nearly so juvenile as some would have us believe; few hearts and minds will be permanently swayed by the force of one prisoner exchange. At the end of the day, Palestinians want to see the formation of a state recognized by the nations of the world, and most know that with Hamas at the helm, that is unlikely to be. Most Palestinians recognize – even if reluctantly – that the route to founding a sustainable state means living side by side with Israel.
Now, some commentators argue, Hamas will be on top and Fatah will be powerless. This kind of misreading of the Palestinian public has gotten Israel into trouble so many times before. Only Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas has an audience at the UN. And perhaps in the most obvious signal that Israel didn’t want to dump too much on him at once, Marwan Barghouti – considered the most popular West Bank Fatah politician – was not included on the list of prisoners to be released. (Of course, Hamas also may not have fought very hard to get him out, knowing that he alone is touted to have the charisma and support to supplant Abbas.) Another odd argument is that this will only encourage more kidnappings of soldiers and more acts of terrorism. But Hamas has not been sitting on its hands for lack of manpower. And if one were to follow through on the natural conclusion of that argument, it would be to let Shalit rot as a “tolerable” price of deterring further kidnappings.
Yes, alongside Israel’s homecoming for Gilad Shalit, there will be huge celebrations hosted by Hamas, which will try to get as much political mileage out of the deal as possible. But just like Israeli amnesia, Palestinian amnesia also plays a role. After 1,027 prisoners come home, there will still be no independent state. There will still be an occupation.
There will still be approximately 4,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, according to B’Tselem, which obtains its figures each month from the Israel Prison Service. (Palestinian figures are often higher, and may include the approximately 3,000 Palestinians held for criminal offenses like car theft.) All that said, I find myself filled with sadness as I watch and read the interviews with the bereaved families opposed to the deal, the bereaved people who haven’t even been bereaved that long, the parents who lost children eight to ten years ago, at the height of the intifada. But that’s our job in the media. When a deal is finally reached, even if it’s a good one, or as good as it gets, we feel the need to point out all of its drawbacks and imperfections, to tell the story of the family whose wound will be reopened just as another family’s is being healed. For better or for worse, that’s what we do.
Nearly 15 years ago, while reporting on this issue – yes, it’s been around for that long – I spent a grim day following Wadha Chirwany, a Palestinian mother, as she went to visit her son in an Israeli jail.
And then, I spent several hours with Esther Wachsman, whose son Nachshon was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994 and then killed during a botched IDF attempt to rescue him. (His kidnapper-killers, incidentally, are on the list of those to be freed.) I walked away from that heartbreaking tale of two mothers feeling that I had given my readers a window into just how complex the issues were, and how much suffering there was on both sides. That was the best I could do, because providing solutions are not a reporter’s territory. But pulling people back from lapses into forgetfulness – that’s right up my alley.