My Word: The price of freedom

My Word The price of fr

'Anyone who knows anything isn't talking," an official told Israel Radio last week. "And anyone who is talking doesn't know anything." But, when it comes to Gilad Schalit, people have been looking for more than information. They have been seeking comfort. Some kind of reassurance that eventually this soldier - not much more than a boy when he was abducted by Hamas three and a half years ago - would eventually come home. Alive. That is the one sentiment that unites all Israel, even as the arguments rage over the price to be paid. On the one hand, we look at Schalit and see someone who could be the son/grandson/ brother/friend of any of us. Unlike countries such as the US where military service is voluntary, in Israel the army is not simply the alternative to a low-paying job out in the sticks. The state demands that its children serve in the military. The people demand that everything be done to make sure those who don IDF uniforms return home safely. On the other hand, while the names on the list of terrorists that Hamas is demanding are not necessarily familiar, the attacks they carried out haunt us all. Sbarro, Moment, Cafe Hillel, Park Hotel, Ben-Yehuda, Mahaneh Yehuda... all places blasted into the national consciousness, never to be deleted. It's hard to imagine how the Schalit family is feeling - can any price be too high when it is your own flesh and blood? It's difficult, too, to fathom what the relatives of terror victims are going through. I know one who purposely decided not to follow the fate of his sister's murderer so he would never have to know of his possible release. Like most Israelis, I have known soldiers who fell in battle and the victims of terror, many of whom died in the name of the peace process. In 1984, I witnessed the incredible joy in the home of a soldier who returned after two years as a Syrian prisoner of war. A rebirth. I also know a family who has yet to discover whether their son - missing since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon in June 1982 - is dead or alive. Last week I asked the sister of Zachary Baumel how she feels as it seems a deal on Schalit is closer than ever before. "It will be a relief," Osna Haberman replied. "Like the lifting of a weight, a stone taken from the heart. I think everyone wants to see him home because he is so much a part of us all. "I can't imagine what that poor boy has been going through. I hope that we see him home soon and that he can recover and carry on building his life. My mother always used to say, 'When your brother comes home he's going to need us.'" Her mother, Miriam Baumel, has not given up hope that Zachary - missing with two other soldiers, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz - is alive. Her father, Yona, who died in June, had mixed emotions over every prisoner deal: He felt happy for the few families whose children were returned alive, and sympathy for those who at least received closure and a grave where they can mourn. But he also confessed to me feeling frustrated that with every such deal the bargaining chips were going down for his son and comrades and the other MIAs - including IAF navigator Ron Arad shot down over Lebanon in 1986, and Guy Hever, who went missing near the Syrian border in 1997. While relatives of Palestinian prisoners bemoan that their sons and husbands are behind bars - where many are allowed visitors - the families of the Israeli MIAs have no real information on their loved ones. "You don't know what they are going through and this is the thing you have nightmares about," Miriam Baumel told me in a pre-Pessah interview. THE CONCEPT that "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh" - "All Israel is responsible for one another" - is one of the most basic tenets of Jewish life. It is both our strength and what makes us so vulnerable to this particular form of psychological warfare. For this is simply another form of war. Even the phrase "prisoner" exchange is infuriating - Schalit was kidnapped and has been held without any of the most basic rights due under international law. But then, international law has yet to catch up with the new terrorist-created reality. Over the years, the price has gone up, discussions have changed from whether to release prisoners to how many prisoners, then to how many prisoners with "blood on their hands." Now, the terrorist organizations are trying to dictate which of their members should receive a free get-out-of-jail card. It used to be taken for granted that the state would do everything to get POWs back. Then the price got higher and higher. In July 2008, Israel released child-killer Samir Kuntar, four live Hizbullah members and 200 dead ones for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, undoubtedly motivating Hamas to increase its own demands. There was an essential covenant between the country and its soldiers that they would not be abandoned in the field. Perhaps this is not only out of humanitarian concerns. There is also a practical issue at stake. Will recruits be prepared to serve their country if they can't trust the country to be there for them in their hour of need? This month's IDF recruits reportedly showed a higher motivation to serve in combat units than those who enlisted the same time last year. This can partly be attributed to the success of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, but it would not be possible if the rookies didn't feel the country is behind them. Growing up in Britain I watched TV series and old movies like Colditz and The Great Escape about British soldiers who had to rely on themselves to get out from German captivity. Israelis, especially following the Entebbe Operation in 1976, always felt that in similar situations their job was to try to stay alive. It was the country's job to rescue them. While daring raids make great TV dramas, they involve huge risks to the soldiers who carry them out and are not always feasible even in cases where the state has the necessary information about where hostages are being held. Hence it seems unlikely that Israel will be freed from the "prisoners' dilemma" - the agony of deciding what price - any time soon. In fact, only peace might bring an end to the situation in which Israelis are captured by terrorists and released in return for Palestinian prisoners, many of whom then carry out another outrage. The least we can do is demand that any diplomatic process - with the Palestinians or the Syrians - includes a procedure under which all the MIAs are returned. As for Schalit's situation, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi tells a story concerning his mother, Geula Cohen, a former hard-line right-wing parliamentarian. When Hanegbi was serving in the First Lebanon War, Cohen was asked what she would do if he were taken prisoner. "As a mother, I would be outside the Prime Minister's Office with a megaphone 24 hours a day calling on the government to do anything it took to obtain his release." she replied. "As a Knesset member, I would sit inside the PM's Office and tell him not to listen to the people outside." Whatever the outcome, one thing is for certain: I'm proud to be a member of a country agonizing over how to bring home a kidnapped soldier like a communal son. That the Palestinians have turned their mass murderers and child-killers into heroes should disturb us all.