The right decision, 1,027 times over

Hamas may claim victory, but Israel’s decision to release over a thousand prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier has shown the strength of the covenant between the government and the soldiers it conscripts and the value the Jewish State places on human life.

Schalits leave Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Schalits leave Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It is one of the most challenging decisions a leader could ever make.
Should one man be saved even if his freedom means that his nation is put in danger? Can the state’s responsibility to punish acts of terror be fulfilled if the perpetrators are allowed to escape justice? Is it better to give Noam and Aviva Schalit their son or to give closure to the thousands of Israelis who suffered at the hands of the Palestinian prisoners? What is the value of a single human life?
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left office still searching for answers to these profoundly challenging questions. But Netanyahu has found the answer. And it has left his people, his army and the world in no doubt as to the sanctity of the bond between state and soldier and the value that the Jewish State places on a single human life.
The soldier occupies a revered position in Israeli society. Almost mythical. Perhaps it is because the Jews have witnessed first hand what a soldier can achieve and what can be achieved in his absence.
The Promised Land may have been bequeathed by God but it was conquered by Joshua’s armies. And through the Holocaust, the Jews saw what horrors can occur when one is powerless to fight back. So the bond is strong. But we cannot know just how strong until times like this when the rhetoric and the pledges of the state must give way to difficult actions. In agreeing to release 1,027 convicted terrorists, Israel has demonstrated the primacy of the bond in Israeli society. Nations may venerate and commemorate their soldiers but never has a government placed so high a price on the life of a single soldier and truly repaid the sacrifice a soldier makes for his nation.
The decision to negotiate the release of Gilad Schalit also sends a powerful rebuke to critics of Israel’s military policies. Operations in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon have been condemned as escalations or disproportionate. Yet in demonstrating how highly it values the life of its soldiers, Israel has unequivocally demonstrated that it does not commit troops to combat unless it is absolutely essential to do so.
Netanyahu’s decision has been further vindicated by the reaction of the nation; particularly when the current jubilation is contrasted with the defeated, somber mood following the release of child killer and quadruple murderer, Samir Kuntar in 2008 in exchange for the corpses of two Israeli soldiers. The Kuntar decision did not sit comfortably with the public. In that case, there was no life to save.
But here, the decision reflects the nation’s ethics – derived as they are from the Jewish faith. As the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jakobovits noted, “the value of human life is infinite and beyond measure.” Schalit’s release is an affirmation of life and a reminder of the indelible mark that ancient Jewish ethics have left on the modern Jewish State.
But while the decision to negotiate Schalit’s release is the right one, the political consequences cannot be ignored. This is not just a day of celebration for Israel and the Jewish people; Hamas celebrates a profound victory also. They have demonstrated that armed resistance can achieve what statesmanship and diplomacy cannot. Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly little more than a fortnight ago included a demand for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Yet it took an act of force to secure the liberty of more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas will be jubilant, Fatah will feel embarrassed and the Israeli position that the Palestinian cause will only be advanced through peaceful means has been spectacularly undermined.
The decision to release 1,027 convicted terrorists will weigh heavily on the conscience of the Israeli government. They will feel that they have failed the victims of terror and strengthened the hand of an organization committed to its destruction. That is an incredibly high price. But one which Israel, a state founded on Jewish values and dependent on its army to survive, will be all too happy to pay. In contrast, just as Lebanon celebrated the return of the murderer, Kuntar, Palestinians will embrace the return of their own criminals – and will perhaps be left slightly perplexed by why Hamas has shown that the liberty of 1,027 of its own people is equivalent to the life of one solitary Israeli soldier.
The writer is a London based lawyer and founder of The Jewish Thinker (, a non-profit organization promoting debate and contribution to matters affecting Jewish thought and life.