Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Gilad Problem

Israeli media today was dominated (and here, and here) by news that talks for the return of the Israeli soldier--Gilad Shalit--captured by Hamas in a cross border raid almost 1,000 days ago have broken down. The main points of contention are the number and identities of prisoners Hamas is asking for in a prisoner swap and the location to which they will be released--Israel would like some of them to be exiled.

There are several interesting aspects to this story. The Shalit family has lobbied very aggressively to bring their son's plight to the public's attention and has succeeded in garnering much popular support in Israel which has in turn placed enormous pressure on the Israeli government to do something. As negotiations break down, Israeli officials have commented that this popular support actually harms the Israeli position as it emboldens Hamas who feel that the clock is ticking for Israelis but not for them.

In reaction to this breakdown of negotiations, one option Israeli officials are considering is to begin to treat the prisoners Hamas has demanded, more like Hamas is treating Shalit. It will now be the task of the Israeli minister of Justice to propose measures that can be taken against prisoners held by Israel to bring their treatment closer to that of Shalit. The problem with this, of course, is that nobody can really be sure how Shalit is being treated. Hamas will not allow the Red Cross to visit him. One retaliatory option Israel may consider is to disallow family visits for Palestinian prisoners. One problem with this approach is that it may not have any impact on Hamas. Hamas may not care very much about the well being of its prisoners and may be more interested in simply recovering them. Further restrictions on Palestinian prisoners may even drive Hamas to worsen Shalit's conditions. If this is the road Israel chooses to go down then it is incumbent upon Israel not to infringe on any of its prisoners rights (as opposed to their privileges.) Indeed, it is a slippery slope.

Another surprising twist is that Israelis are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to any prisoner swap for Shalit. Citing concerns that such a trade could demonstrate to Hamas and others that kidnappings of soldiers are "lucrative" and produce political and military results. Partial lists of terrorists Israel is willing to free as well as lists of those they are not willing to free have been made available. Many of these people have been convicted with multiple life sentences and are a veritable who's who of Palestinian terrorism. Opponents to the Shalit swap point out that in the past, terrorists that Israel has released in prisoner swaps can be linked to at least 180 Israeli deaths. One may speculate, however, over whether the threat to Israelis of releasing these prisoners is actually so great, or whether the greater threat is granting Hamas what could be perceived as too large of a victory.

Refusing to exchange for Shalit is the approach that removes emotion from the equation. It argues that Shalit was a soldier sent to protect Israelis, the cost of releasing him will endanger Israelis, so don't release him. It is a surprising argument from a country that's so small, that sees most of its citizens serve in the military--a military with a mantra of 'leave nobody behind on the battlefield.' One response of these anti-exchangers is that rather than exchange, Israel should repatriate Shalit by force. This is much easier said than done. One would imagine that if Israel knew where Shalit was held and felt they could repatriate him, they would have by now. The IDF has conducted far more daring raids, such as the 1976 raid on the Entebbe airport where passengers from a hijacked Air France plane were freed and returned home with remarkably few casualties. On the other hand, given that the purpose of the 2006 Lebanon war was to recover three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah in a cross border raid (later, amongst other freed prisoners, a notorious terrorist who had killed a child, along with the bodies of many other Palestinian and Lebanese killed in fighting with Israel were returned for the bodies of these three soldiers) and that was unsuccessful, Israel may be more hesitant to try and risk failing. On the other hand, in the case of Entebbe, Israel negotiated for the release of the hostages up until several short hours before the fighting began.

A frightening potential result from a prisoner swap could be vigilante justice. This article describes the relatives of victims of terrorists who may be released for Shalit who chillingly indicate their readiness to avenge the deaths of their loved ones in any way. Without having ever lost anyone to terrorism, it is probably impossible to put oneself in the shoes of these families. On the other hand, vigilante justice is a frighteningly lawless prospect. On the other hand, most of these relatives have pledged that any action they take will be legally sanctioned. This would likely imply lawsuits against the released prisoners in jurisdictions they are released to (provided they are exiled.)

Another important consideration is that the current Israeli PM, Olmert will probably soon be replaced by Netanyahu. Netanyahu may well continue negotiations, but he has spoken against the last exchange with Lebanon and has members in his coalition who advocate 'freeing' captive soldiers, as opposed to negotiating for them. The longer any party waits for a deal, however, the closer Shalit comes to being the next Ron Arad, an Israeli pilot missing since 1986 and whose whereabouts are unknown.

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