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Very rarely in Israel’s history could its political actions be described as truly, absolutely, and blindly self-destructive. When one prisoner is exchanged for more than a thousand prisoners, of almost infinite greater political and economic value, any objective bystander with two brain cells and a synapse should recognize such a society. But even worse than prior Israeli blunders, somehow this exchange occurred under the watch, and even the broad support, of Israeli civil society.
One thousand and twenty seven. The number is almost so large that it loses its meaning, but it was the number of Palestinian prisoners exchanged for Gilad Shalit. Hamas selected 479 of the prisoners and Israel selected the remainder. Of Hamas’s 479, 315 were serving life sentences and most were serving sentences longer than 20 years. One can assume that the remainder selected by Israel committed lesser crimes and are not expected to threaten Israel.
Four hundred and seventy nine. Still, the number is too large to grasp its full scope. The mass majority of the 479 either planned or participated directly in attacks against Israel or indirectly through leadership in a violent organization. To be exact, 569 Israelis were killed by those being released and many more were injured. Of course, as is the case anywhere, dozens of the 479 were probably victims of circumstances beyond their control. The point remains that Israel released many hundreds who have intended and continue to intend the deaths of Israelis.
Even those who bemoan the likely loss of future lives—almost always within a justification for the prisoner exchange—still do not comprehend the full cost of the 1027. The operations of gathering intelligence, capturing, interrogating, and keeping in prison of a high-profile prisoner carry very high economic and political costs, not to mention the deaths and injuries of soldiers and intelligence operators. No doubt the repetition of these operations is already underway for many of the 479.
One. That is a number anybody can grasp and, more importantly, it is a number that anyone can humanize. In Israel, posters of Gilad Shalit decorated city streets, his picture hung from taxi mirrors, and his image stalked television programs. In a state with mandatory military service, every soldier is a symbol for a loved one. Gilad Shalit’s family impressively energized Israeli society to their cause. They protested outside Netanyahu’s house and when they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, over 200,000 joined them. Of course, the hysteria of Israel’s civil society could not have served Hamas’s interests more if it was orchestrating the Gilad Shalit events itself.
Every state needs its symbols and every civil society needs its heroes. Gilad Shalit united a deeply diverse and politically fragmented state. However, the danger with symbols mirrors the danger of a civil society strong enough to bully political leadership—they are not rational. Seventy-nine percent of Israelis supported the prisoner exchange. Functioning democracy requires not only checks and balances between branches of the government, but also between civil society and political leadership. Netanyahu and his administration failed to protect Israel’s people and interests. Netanyahu is as responsible for this debacle as much as an irrational and emotional civil society.
Moreover, the precedent set by the prisoner exchange has created at least two moral hazards. First of all, now that the going rate between Israeli and Palestinian prisoners is established at 1000:1, Hamas and other anti-Israeli groups are incentivized to capture more Israeli soldiers or civilians. According to an AP report, thousands in Gaza chanted, “The people want a new Gilad Shalit” and some of Hamas’s leadership have already hinted at fresh plans. The second moral hazard is the risk that Israeli families of victims will exploit the gullibility of Israel’s civil society to rescue their loved ones to detriment of countless others.
Even worse than the shocking shortsightedness of Israeli civil society were domestic and international analysts’ gullible somersaults to dig their heads deeper in the ground with more desperate and contrived justifications for the exchange. Haaretz laughably lauded Israel’s “stubbornness and steadfastness,” saving their highest plaudits for Netanyahu for “know[ing] how to draw lines in the sand.” The typically conservative Jerusalem Post shrugged off the steep cost and moral hazards because “right now an IDF soldier’s life is being saved.”
Some, including Gilad Shalit, hope that the prisoner exchange will precipitate future talks, possibly with Egypt in a mediating role once again. Unless those future talks are also about prisoner exchanges, those talks are very difficult to imagine. Hamas and others who wish Israel to disappear have now had their violence rewarded and they will only view Israel as a weaker target, rather than as a future peace partner. The exchange may have set many precedents, but peace negotiations are not among them.
Israel does not make small decisions. It is one of the world’s few states whose existence is not accepted by many of its neighbors. Israel’s flourishing civil society is the foundation of its strength. It is also a potential Achilles Heel. Proponents of Israel should hope the country rediscovers its backbone and foresight.
Eric T. Justin ’13, Crimson Editorial Writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House, His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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