When Palestinian terrorists tried to force two Israeli teens into a car on June 16, talk show hosts and Internet commentators focused on how foolish the girls were for hitchhiking. They missed the point. Israelis who live in the periphery of the country - be they Arava kibbutzniks or Samaria village residents - have always relied on catching rides in the absence of frequent bus service. Tens of thousands of us get to and from work and school this way - not just impulsive teenagers, but teachers and nurses and computer programmers. The problem isn't the hitchhikers, it's the terrorists. The failed attempt to capture the girls foreshadowed the Palestinians' revival of an old strategy of attacking isolated civilians and soldiers, both as a form of terror and to extract gains. And the minute kidnapping is tolerated, we're all vulnerable - whether we're standing at a bus stop or at the edge of a village. Indeed, the return to kidnapping hasn't escaped the notice of Arab states, which are allegedly concerned that, inspired by the Palestinians, kidnapping might become a renewed fashion in their countries as well. Kassam attacks on Sderot and kidnapping are the first signatures of the new Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority - not exactly confidence building in this period when Hamas is supposedly courting the good opinion of the world. Very soon after the incident of the two girls fighting back and thus being rescued from their would-be kidnappers, wounded soldier Gilad Shalit was dragged into the Gaza Strip. Eliahu Asheri, 18, a quiet and optimistic boy from Itamar, was snatched and shot in the head. Said Abed Aal, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees which kidnapped and murdered Asheri, promised there would be more kidnappings: "We will kidnap and kill you and burn the earth beneath you. We promise to drown you in fear and terror." Although the terrorists claimed their goal was to strike a bargain in return for Asheri's release, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, handling the investigation of Asheri's kidnapping and murder, said the teen was shot in the head at close range soon after capture. IN THE United States, kidnapping for ransom has become very uncommon, both because of the difficulties of undetected money transfer and because the crime is considered so heinous. Severe punishments contribute to the deterrent. It would seem impossible to justify kidnapping, but not so in the Middle East. During the second intifada, genocidal suicide bus and cafe bombings were justified as legitimate actions and, according to Palestinian surveys, were enthusiastically approved by the vast majority of Palestinians. Likewise, the kidnappings are being rationalized. Together with Shalit's kidnapping, a spate of letters by relatives of jailed Palestinian terrorists was immediately released and reprinted in the Israeli and world press. Typical is one is from a Palestinian girl who sees her father's imprisonment for terrorism as the equivalent of kidnapping. Those in Israeli prisons, she claims, aren't there out of a motivation to kill or terrorize, as Israeli leaders claim, but to "protect our land and our faith." Even in the face of Asheri's murder, she is sure that Gilad Shalit is certainly enjoying the conditions of a prisoner of war. The BBC ran a piece in which a Palestinian describes Gilad Shalit's kidnapping as an "opportunity" to free his own wife from jail. The demand for release of terrorists who are either women or younger than 18 is another tactic to chip away at Israel's deterrent imprisonment of murderers. That, together with the elevation of the status of jailed terrorists through the Prisoners' Letter could make us forget what these men and women are in jail for in the first place. It portrays Israel as a society in which Palestinians are detained and arrested out of capricious cruelty. The prison system, the security fence and targeted attacks - whatever has been proven an effective means of combating terrorism - are all criticized on moral grounds as a means of internationally delegitimizing Israel and at the same time undercutting our will to continue fighting terror. AT THE very least, we should be reminding the world and ourselves who some of these prisoners are. Why isn't our government publicizing the importance of the prison system in deterrence instead of allowing ourselves look like a regime that has no court system? In the Neveh Tirza women's prison, for example, you'll find Ahlan Tanimi, who brought the bomb that murdered 16 in the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. You'll also find Kahira Sa'adi, a mother of four who drove a terrorist to King George Avenue, where he blew up three people. She has expressed her eagerness to do it again. Others are wannabe Wafa Idris, who blew herself up on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, or Hanady Jaradats, who killed 21 in the Maxim restaurant in Haifa. Even the non-feminists among us will probably agree that these prisoners deserve equal punishment. ANOTHER ATTEMPT to take the sting out of kidnapping is the categorizing of both the girls who escaped kidnapping and Eliahu Asheri as "settlers," as if that undercuts the seriousness of the crime. We can't control the foreign press, but at least we Israelis should know how despicable this is, and that every child is equally precious and every kidnapping equally monstrous. Like generations of Jews before us, we have to struggle with how and what to do and not do to redeem those stolen from us. The last thing we should do is to allow anyone to minimize the contemptibility of the crime.