Almost every day, during a recent stay in Jerusalem, I walked past the tent that the parents of Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured in 2006 by Hamas, had pitched near the residence of Israel’s prime minister. Theirs was a long vigil.
Distraught but dignified, and most of the time not knowing whether their son was dead or alive, the Shalits have haunted the conscience of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country.
My head told me that by giving in to Hamas’s demand for a thousand prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Shalit, Israel would encourage more abductions and free terrorists who would almost surely murder many more Israelis. But my heart told me that these bereft parents deserved all the support they could get. In the end, my heart won and I walked up to the tent, signed the petition and gave a donation.
I knew I’d done wrong.
Last week, Israel agreed to exchange Sergeant Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Today, Sergeant Shalit arrived in Israel and the first 477 of the prisoners were released. I don’t blame Mr. Netanyahu, his cabinet or his security services for giving in to their hearts, too.
It couldn’t have been easy. The prisoners released today include those who orchestrated suicide attacks on a Jerusalem pizzeria (15 killed), a Passover seder in Netanya (30 killed), a bus in Jerusalem (11 killed) and a bus in Haifa (17 killed). The remaining 550 prisoners, not yet named, are set to be released in two months.
Clearly, the Israeli leaders and officials who approved the exchange were willing to pay a high price to maintain Israel’s sense of solidarity. They want Israeli parents to feel reassured that the government will do all it can to save their captured sons and daughters. And Israeli soldiers are presumably more ready to go into battle if they know that.
Yet, Israel’s leaders should have listened to their heads, painful though it would have been. The consequences of past prisoner releases should have convinced them that the exchange would almost surely prove, in the long run, the more costly choice. In the past three decades, according to one estimate, Israel has released about 7,000 Arab prisoners in exchange for about 16 Israelis and the bodies of 10 more.
Another estimate has put the number of Arab prisoners exchanged since 1985 at about 10,000. According to a 2007 report by an Israeli terrorism victims group, 177 Israelis were murdered in the five years before the study by recidivist terrorists who had been freed.
Abbas ibn Muhammad Alsayd, released in 1996, was subsequently involved in three terrorist attacks, including the 2002 bombing of a Netanya Passover Seder. In 1998, Iyad Sawalha was released as a “good-will” gesture; in 2002 he detonated a bomb that killed 17. And in 2003, Ramez Sali Abu Salmin was released; 7 months later he blew himself up in a Jerusalem cafe, killing 7.
Israeli leaders should realize that releasing 1,027 prisoners for one abducted Israeli soldier will result in more abductions, and that such extortionist and hugely disproportionate mass releases must, finally, stop.
The spokesman for the military wing of Hamas has stated publicly that Sergeant Shalit “will not be the last solider kidnapped by Hamas as long as Israel keeps Palestinian prisoners detained.”
Another group, the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, which was involved with Sergeant Shalit’s abduction, announced, “The abduction of soldiers is our strategy.”
And today, Wafa al-Bass, who was imprisoned in 2005 when she was caught smuggling a suicide bomb through a Gaza checkpoint while pretending to seek medical treatment, said, after being freed, that Palestinians should “take another Shalit” each year until all remaining Palestinian prisoners were free.
You don’t have to read the work of the psychologist B. F. Skinner to understand the danger of positive reinforcement as it applies to the exchange of prisoners for abducted Israelis. You need only read Mr. Netanyahu himself, who in his 1995 book, “Fighting Terrorism,” wrote that “prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.”
Nor is the return to terrorist attacks on Israelis the only consequence of freeing such prisoners. The case of Samir Kuntar, who was set free in 2008 in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers, should serve as a lesson. Mr. Kuntar had killed an Israeli man in front of his 4-year-old daughter and then killed the daughter by bashing her head with his rifle — while the man’s wife, hiding nearby, accidentally smothered their 2-year-old trying to keep her quiet.
Mr. Kuntar is now a hero among Palestinians and across the Muslim world. He and other prisoners released by Israel were honored by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the elimination of Israel. Mr. Ahmadinejad gave Mr. Kuntar a medal for “supporting the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance.”
Given this history, it is absurd to see Israel’s exchanging a soldier, or even dead bodies, for hundreds of prisoners as a policy that strengthens the country’s sense of solidarity or morale.
What will Israeli leaders say to the relatives of the civilians who almost surely will be killed by the prisoners released in the Shalit deal — and to the parents of the soldiers, as well as civilians, who will be taken captive by Hamas for further prisoner releases?
Continuing to take existential risks for peace, even ones unlikely to bear fruit, may be necessary for Israeli leaders. What is not necessary is taking suicidal risks that will save one sergeant but guarantee the abductions of many more soldiers and the murders of many more Israelis.
One’s heart can’t help but celebrate for the Shalit family. But one’s head can’t help but throb contemplating the many abductions — and the numerous dead — that his release will yield.
By Walter Reich, a psychiatrist and a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998 and the editor of Origins of Terrorism.