Thursday, October 18, 2012

18-Oct-12: The Shalit deal a year later - a personal reflection

Convicted terrorists by the busload: October 18, 2011 [Image Source]  
Whatever it takes: Looking back at the Shalit deal
Arnold Roth, Jerusalem
When the deal to bring Gilad Shalit home was announced a year ago, three aspects caused a rising sense of trepidation in my home.  
One: the number of Arab prisoners going free was huge and unprecedented. 1,027 is substantially more than al-Qaeda’s entire membership at the time of the 9/11 atrocities [source]. 
Secondly, hundreds of killers including the woman who had been in our nightmares for years were on the list.  
Three: the terms had been hammered out with no meaningful attempt to address the concerns of the terrorists’ victims. Gilad was no POW. This was no conventional prisoner exchange. Kidnapped and held hostage in a dark hole, he was disconnected from the world for some 2,000 days. We can only guess at the despair endured by the Shalits.  
His captors were dispatched by Hamas, not an army but a movement defining itself in religious terms. Their war was never about winning independence or military advantage. The hold they sought was not over Israel but over their own home base, the Palestinian Arabs. They aimed to displace the Fatah/PLO camp of PA chief Mahmoud Abbas. Their method was an audacious act of extortion.  
Neither political strategists nor public figures, my wife Frimet and I wrote and spoke widely in the years before the deal. As parents of a child murdered by Hamas and part of Israel’s ever-widening circle of terror victims, we understood that freeing Gilad Shalit raised multiple considerations, only some of which were being publicly evaluated. 
The central message of the Free Shalit campaign was that Israel must do “whatever it takes” to bring him home. They said terrorism was basically under control; releasing unrepentant killers would have little impact on Israel; our side would know how to handle them. Jewish ethics mandated that you do everything to rescue the hostage; more so when it’s an IDF soldier. And so on.
These assertions seemed dubious before the release. With a year’s after-the-fact hindsight, their wrongness is clearer to us now. 
Reality is more nuanced than slogans. The post-Shalit reality is less bright than deal proponents predicted, but it is not catastrophic. True, Israel’s internal security agency, the Shabak, and the IDF report steady growth in terror attacks by Palestinian Arabs on Israelis. September 2012’s terror statistics show an 80% increase over August. Fifteen Shalit-round releasees have already been re-arrested by Israel for terror-related activities and are back behind bars. Support for Hamas in the West Bank has risen appreciably. 
An analytic piece in the influential Haaretz newspaper [source] a day after Gilad Shalit’s release said many Israelis had under-estimated the price: “Hamas celebrating in the streets of the West Bank, masses of people vowing to kidnap Israelis, songs of praise of Hamas' military wing and crowds vowing to continue the jihad until Israel is destroyed”. Hamas had been saved – by Israel. 
Frimet and I did dozens of media interviews during October 2011. We did not speak against the deal. What we did was to carefully drove the discussion back to our daughter’s murderer, Ahlam Tamimi. It was imperative she be removed from the go-free list, we said. We had been arguing this for years [see this 2006 article, one of many]. 
Why? She embodies what Hamas markets to its people. A principal engineer of the 2001 Jerusalem Sbarro restaurant massacre, she selected the target after spying out the area and personally transported the bomb, both the explosive package and man carrying it in his guitar case, into Jerusalem that day. She issued final instructions before the explosion, and then hurried back to Ramallah where she appeared on camera presenting PA television evening news, smiling demurely as she reported on a massacre she herself had covertly executed.  
Tamimi’s mantra for years has been she has no regrets. The savage killings were justified. She would (will) happily do it again. She articulately mocked her prosecutors, asserting she would eventually walk free. If she harboured doubts about the righteousness of her bloody path, they don’t show. 
Since last October, she has traveled extensively in the Arab world from her base in Jordan. Audiences respond to her appearances with rapture. She married another unjustly-released, convicted murderer in June, and became the presenter of a terror-promoting television program beamed throughout the Arabic-speaking world. She says the freedom handed to her by Israel is a vindication from heaven. Her toxic message, that killing Jews is right and should be emulated, has a global megaphone. 
Some will view this as a painful but acceptable price; that getting back our captive soldier trumps other concerns. Others will understand the deeply subversive effect of Tamimi’s freedom and its connection to the terrorist attacks now being plotted for future execution. We are in that second group.  
Could the post-Shalit fall-out have been avoided? 
Before the release, it was hard to say, but immediately afterwards there were important revelations. A freshly-retired senior commander in IDF counter-terrorism intelligenceColonel (res.) Ronen Cohen - most recently the intelligence officer of Central Command. said when interviewed on the day Gilad walked free, that this constituted “a resounding failure… The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back… Intelligence is not passive but must be activated. [In the Shalit case,] it never was.”  
Beyond alternative paths un-taken, there remains the painful matter of how the victims of the released prisoners were treated. From experience we know most are neither vindictive nor hate-filled. Citizens expect the state’s institutions to protect them. The legitimacy of legal systems depends on transparency and fairness. Judicial decisions and legal sanctions must be meted out ethically, consistently and justly against those who undermine our society and damage our lives. 
Overturning these core considerations for political reasons causes damage. The fact is the victims’ voices were devastatingly ignored at all stages of the Shalit deal at a cost not yet fully tallied. It may yet prove to be unbearably high.
A modified version of the article above (minus the hyperlinks and under a different title) appears as an op-ed in today's edition of the Australian Jewish News.

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