1,001 Arabian nights

Schalit's captivity is a tragedy. But plan to free terrorists is a farce.

anti-prisoner swap 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
anti-prisoner swap 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was with much skill and cunning and more than a little charm that young Scheherazade entertained Sharyar, weaving enchanting stories whereby, for 1,001 consecutive nights, she bought herself a reprieve from the jealous sultan's pledge to lop off the pretty maiden's head. As Gilad Schalit approaches his own 1,001st night in captivity in Gaza, one wonders what tales have filled his mind and kept the young soldier sane, and hopeful of his own reprieve. Here in Israel, ever since Schalit was kidnapped in a cross-border raid on June 25, 2006, many have been keeping a vigil for him - and repeating a fantasy of their own. For two and a half years, the question of Schalit's safe return has come down to what price Israel was willing to pay, i.e., how many Palestinian security prisoners it would release. And all along the government has played a duplicitous game, pretending that it did not accept this demand as a basis for negotiations, while at the same time practically imploring the public to demand that it pay any price necessary to "bring the boy home." But there were bumps on that road: Hizbullah attacked the northern border, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded with a war so large and so bumbling that young Schalit became an afterthought. Then Hamas violently overthrew Fatah in the Gaza Strip, making any concession to them unseemly. Then the rocket fire on the Negev became so brazen and so massive that even Olmert could not ignore it anymore, ordering a major incursion that smashed large parts of Gaza City and left no room for negotiations. Now - in his final days in office - Olmert has dispatched his emissaries to Cairo for one last attempt to appease Hamas and score a stunning victory for himself. If negotiations in Egypt go well, the "prisoner swap" agreement is to be brought before the cabinet today, where it is expected to pass by a slim margin. Rushing to the defense of such a deal have been not only Schalit's parents, who erected a protest tent in front of Olmert's residence visited by thousands of supporters - and, especially, politicians who until now have done nothing for Schalit but who suddenly see the profit in embracing the public's sympathy for his family - but by the media, and even former security figures. The latest quotes come from Ami Ayalon, speaking not as a spurned Labor Party maverick but as the former head of the Shin Bet. "There is no prisoner sitting in an Israeli jail worth Gilad Schalit's continued captivity," Ayalon told Israel Radio. "There is simply no one like that." He went on to say that freeing 450 "high-level" prisoners on the Hamas list would not necessarily lead to an increase in terror attacks. "Terror depends less on the identity of terrorists that are freed than on diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street," he said. "I am not ignoring the dilemma, there are contradictory values and people with blood on their hands, but on the other hand, there is a soldier that we recruited to the IDF and sent out to battle." Here, in the space of just a few words, is the fantasy that the Israeli people have been sold, the lullaby for their collective conscience that is paving the way for the enormous prisoner release now in the works. For, "there is no prisoner sitting in an Israeli jail worth Gilad Schalit's continued captivity" is undoubtedly true. But it is irrelevant. It is a false equation. THERE IS NO LOGICAL connection between the prisoners in Israeli jails and the Israeli soldier being held ransom in the Gaza Strip. Those prisoners were convicted of terrorism and guerrilla warfare; they murdered Israelis in the name of jihad, or maimed Israelis while trying to murder them in the name of jihad, or were stopped en route to attempting to murder Israelis in the name of jihad. Their conviction and their incarceration uphold the principle of justice; their release would undermine it. Rather than mitigating the crimes that these people committed, the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit (and the murder of two of his fellow soldiers in the same raid, let's remember) marks an additional crime above and beyond them. By rights it demands not a softening of Israel's response toward Hamas and its partners in terrorism but a hardening of it. This fundamental truth is ignored and replaced with the idea that, if only we would rid ourselves of several hundred (or possibly well over a thousand!) low-lifes, we could rejoice in the safe return of the precious lad whose cherubic visage we have all been shown over and over again for nearly 1,001 nights. And when someone has the nerve to ask whether it is wise to send convicted terrorists back to their masters, people like Ami Ayalon come to remind us that "terror depends less on the identity of terrorists that are freed than on diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street." Never mind the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of Israelis have been murdered or maimed at the hands of convicted terrorists who were released from Israeli prisons. Never mind the fact that terrorism is entirely disconnected from the "diplomatic horizons and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street," that it is supremely dependent on terrorists' belief that they will succeed in weakening their enemy, and that it often comes in a direct attempt to thwart any "diplomatic horizon" from developing. Damn the facts, man, "there is a soldier that we recruited to the IDF and sent out to battle!" Yes, there is a life at stake, and it is precious. However, there is absolutely no reason to believe that releasing hordes of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Gilad Schalit will prevent the further loss of life, while there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it will in fact cause more of it. When Ariel Sharon negotiated with Hizbullah in 2004 for the return of kidnapped businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in a cross-border raid four years earlier, those who warned that releasing more than 400 terrorists was a dangerous precedent were called cold, callous and short-sighted. Yet it was in emulation of that result that Gilad Schalit's captors dug tunnels under the Gaza border fence and raided his base in the hopes of dragging home bloodied Israeli soldiers whom they could hold as bargaining chips of their own. And it was due to the success of both those raids that Hizbullah again attacked an IDF patrol along the Lebanese border less than three weeks after Schalit's capture, succeeding in kidnapping reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Perhaps the saddest part of this whole saga, though, is that no one has the guts to tell the Schalits the truth: that releasing terrorists in exchange for their son is wrong, and endangers other Israelis; that treating Hamas with trepidation, out of fear for Schalit's life, only emboldened the movement and invited it to step up its rocket attacks on the Negev, as well as profoundly complicating the recent incursion into Gaza, and that their son's suffering is a tragedy but that it does not outweigh the greater security concerns of the entire state. Of course, if Gilad Schalit does return home, it will be right and proper to cheer his freedom and his safety. And when the next Israeli is kidnapped to release even more terrorists, no one will dare ask him whether he feels responsible for it. Unfortunately, though, no one will ask Ami Ayalon or Ehud Olmert that question, either. The writer is a member of The Jerusalem Post editorial staff.