Lessons From the Release of Gilad Shalit

Gilad Shalit returns to his home to Mitzpe Hila in the northern Galilee today and only the most hardened observer could fail to be moved by the pictures of a young man reunited with his family after 1941 days in captivity.

Gilad Shalit returns to his home to Mitzpe Hila in the northern Galilee today and only the most hardened observer could fail to be moved by the pictures of a young man reunited with his family after 1941 days in captivity.

But the prisoner exchange which led to Shalit's release was a troublesome bargain for Israel, and looking beyond the emotional ferment, there are some important conclusions to be made in the wake of his return.

The occasion of Shalit's release has sparked scenes of unrestrained joy in Israel and amongst Zionists around the world. Like Ron Arad before him, Shalit has become a symbol of Israel's lost youth, forced to risk their lives in defence of their country.

The Israeli obsession with the return of their lost soldiers is in part a result of the emphasis placed on the sanctity of a Jewish life by their religion. It is also a reflection of the bargain that underpins Israel's civilian army - any lengths are justified in order to rescue a captive soldier. How else can every Jewish family in Israel accept that their sons and daughters are forced to give two or three of their best years to a bitter conflict from which they may not return?

During his captivity, Shalit became a lightning rod for the emotions, fears and neuroses of an entire nation. Such was the desire to see him freed that Likud PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition were willing to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some - though not all - of whom were directly responsible for terrorist atrocities against Israeli civilians, in order to secure one soldier's freedom.

On first glance the prisoner exchange does not appear to be in Israel's interest.

Several Hamas voices, including militant leader Yehia Sinwar, have already expressed the desire to effect further kidnappings in order to persuade Israel to release more of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it still holds. Security analysts within the IDF have questioned the exchange, fearing that it makes Israel vulnerable to blackmail and that it will strengthen the hand of Hamas, Israel's most implacable foe.

The exchange was also bitterly opposed by some of the families of terror victims who have been forced to watch the people convicted of murdering their loved ones walk free. Netanyahu acknowledged this agony, writing a letter to these bereaved families in which he told them that he "he shares their pain in seeing their murderers freed in return for Gilad," but had little choice in the matter.

Despite these concerns, the desire to see Shalit freed was so ardent and widespread within Israel that a deal was always likely. Israeli soldiers must know that each time they risk their lives their country will do its utmost to rescue them if they are captured, or return their body if they are killed. It is this knowledge which keeps a civilian army of conscripted teenagers functioning. Netanyahu will also benefit politically from Shalit's release - at least until one of the freed prisoners is implicated in violence against Israel.

But when the dust settles and the emotional outpouring is finished, there two important lessons Israel must learn from these events:

First, that the deal proves negotiations of mutual interest between Israel and Hamas are possible. As the Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy said this week: "Why is it permissible to negotiate with Hamas over the fate of a single soldier yet prohibited to do so over the fate of two bleeding peoples?"

Secondly, that Shalit will probably not be the last, others may well be kidnapped in the future. Israel must look beyond its obsession with the fate of one soldier, as heartwarming as his release is. What of the two forgotten soldiers who were killed when Shalit was captured? What of the many other soliders who have gone MIA and never been recovered? And what of the thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives in the seemingly endless tit-for-tat violence which has been so endemic in the past twenty years?

If Israel can apply the same level of humanitarian concern and commitment to its own fate and that of its neighbours which it did to the fate of one captured soldier, there may not have to be another Gilad Shalit. If this lesson can be learnt, then this whole agonising tale may not have been in vain.


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