The dramatic prisoner exchange between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza speaks volumes about the culture of both sides. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an overwhelming majority of his Cabinet with the support of the heads of the Shin Bet, Mossad and the IDF, approved a deal that will free captive soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 incarcerated Palestinian terrorists, including many directly involved in some of the worst terror atrocities in Israel’s history.
Israel’s readiness to pay this virtually unimaginable price is in part a testimony to the living influence of 3,000 years of Jewish law which calls the redemption of a Jewish prisoner from the captivity of non-Jewish captors a “great mitzvah”. The Talmud (tractate Bava Batra 8b) notes that this type of imprisonment is worse than “starvation or death”. The Mishna (Tractate Gitten) does warn us that the price paid for redemption of a Jew cannot exceed the prisoner’s value noting that the community must be able to absorb the heavy financial burden. In the case of Gilad Shalit, it is clear that the Jewish people, led by the leadership of its nation state, is prepared to accept the challenge and confront the high price and imminent dangers inherent in the 1,000 for 1 prisoner exchange.
The Palestinian picture is very different. The prisoner exchange comes at a time of intense competition between Hamas and Fatah for primacy and leadership of the Palestinian street. In the aftermath of Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral statehood campaign for recognition at the United Nations, Hamas needed and scored a political victory of its own. At mass celebration rallies across Gaza as reported by the Israeli daily ‘Maariv’, Hamas leaders are trumpeting their victory over Israel while simultaneously blasting the Palestinian Authority leadership led byt Fatah for “believing in negotiations with the Zionist enemy”. Hamas and the competing Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committee leadership also called for continuing the battle to release the remaining 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel – a clear message that Israel can expect more terrorist kidnappings.
Part of the Hamas victory is Israel’s agreement to release some 115 Palestinian terrorists to their homes in the Fatah-led and Palestinian Authority-based West Bank, which poses a direct challenge to the political future of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah leadership. Historical context is important. For the past ten years, the Hamas leadership has been positioning itself to take over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the right opportunity. The Hamas electoral victory in 2006 reflected its ascendency.
However, subsequent Hamas setbacks laid the groundwork for the current exchange. Hamas’ recent loss of its external headquarters in Damascus following Syria’s recent official statements that it accepts a future Palestinian state in 1967 'borders' in contrast to past pronouncements demanding all of Palestine as Hamas continues to demand, and public discontent on the Gazan street over Hamas’ brutality, Islamic extremism and corruption, have made the current deal an important one for Hamas’ leadership of Gaza and its prospective primacy throughput the West Bank in addition to its desire for greater international legitimacy. Now Hamas can say it forced Israel to negotiate directly with its leadership, in Cairo.
The risks Israel has taken upon itself with the return of hundreds of ‘heavy’ Hamas terror operatives to the West Bank sharply increases Israel’s need for defensible borders in the strategically vital West Bank, and particularly the Jordan Valley and its rising 3,200 foot-hill ridge, as part of any peace agreement, in order to prevent Palestinian terrorists from firing rockets on Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport. Security concerns have also made the Hamas-Shalit exchange one that has caused trepidation for many in Israel, particularly the hundreds of families whose loved ones were murdered by Hamas and other terrorists due to be released.
The return of hundreds of Hamas terrorists to the Gaza Strip also deepens Israel’s acute justification to inspect potential weapons ships attempting to supply Hamas terrorists with advanced weaponry. There have been at least six major smuggling attempts over the past ten years.
The recent UN-sponsored Palmer Commission backed Israel’s legal rights to inspect ships off its coast and in international waters. The most famous weapons ship was the ‘Karin-A’ which was carrying 50 tons of weaponry destined to Gaza when it was intercepted. In 2009. The vessel ‘Francop’ was stopped on its way to Syria after loading its cargo in Egypt. The Francop's cargo included 36 containers with 500 tons of arms, 9, 000 mortar bombs, 3,000 rockets, 3,000 gun shells, 20,000 grenades and half a million rounds of small ammunition, according to the Israeli army (see picture).
It must be emphasized that Israel maritime security needs have increased exponentially with the Hamas-Shalit exchange.
The Jewish people’s eternal embrace of the value of a human life is unique in history. Regardless if one agrees or disagrees with the terms of the exchange, what other people in the past, present or future of human civilization would even consider trading 1,000 convicted terrorists with “blood on their hands” to redeem the life of a single kidnapped soldier?