Like after every leak about the fate of Gilad Shalit, they're back in the public square, like deflated beach balls that got a shot of some air, singing their same old songs. "Releasing terrorists will bring terror," they warn. "Hamas will grow stronger," "Israel has been vanquished," they say, frothing at the mouth. Each has impressive data on terror attacks carried out by released prisoners: 30, 60, even 70 percent of these terrorists return to killing Jews. Grim figures indeed, enough to make one decide, "Let Shalit die - just don't let civilians be killed." Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit is like the finger in the dike - as long as he's in captivity and the prisoners are locked up, our lives are secure, the prestige of the State of Israel has been upheld and Hamas will continue to wallow in its misery.
The thousands of Qassams and mortars fired on Sderot and its environs can be forgotten, as long as Shalit stays where he is and the prisoners are behind bars. Also forgotten are all the terror attacks in Jerusalem, Netanya and Hadera long before Shalit was seized and while thousands of Palestinians were already imprisoned. Those ominous statistics about freed terrorists do not indicate how many attacks were executed by those who had never been jailed, or were jailed only after staging attacks. How easy it is to present a false, distorted picture showing the profound connection between freeing terrorists and terror attacks, one that ignores the fact that for 42 years, the motivation for such attacks was not freeing prisoners, but ending the occupation.
The voices in the public square demand a "public dialogue," "open debate," "transparency." They want to know how much blood is on the hands of each prisoner set to be released, as if there were a direct link between the amount of blood a terrorist has spilled and the amount he will spill in the future. And where were they over the last three and a half years? Did no one know that it wasn't exactly Bratslav Hasidim slated to be freed? And how about their sudden demand to differentiate between those who killed one Jew and those who killed 10, between a little blood and a lot?
But if the mathematics of terror attest to the difficulty in understanding its rationale, perhaps the argument against strengthening Hamas is even more amusing. This line of thinking holds that negotiations over an exchange for Shalit are merely a Hamas stunt. The very existence of talks over his release, they say, grants the group cachet it never had, all the more so if Israel accedes to its demands.
Is that really so? Hamas proved its prestige in 2006, when it won a large majority in the Palestinian general election. Back then, it did not need an Israeli captive or a prisoner release. It seized authority in Gaza because no party - not Israel nor Fatah, nor the countries of the Quartet - agreed to recognize its esteemed position. Hamas continued to grow stronger as it became clear that without it, there was no point in holding diplomatic discussions on any part of Palestine. Reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, plans to create a new Palestine Liberation Organization including Hamas as a senior partner - all of these testify to Hamas' power.
The movement's influence rose further with its Qassam war on Israel, its reticence in the face of Israel's cruel sanctions on the Gaza Strip, and during Operation Cast Lead. Hamas essentially became the axis around which disputes were played out between Egypt and Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. All of these are independent of Shalit. There is no doubt that the release of Palestinian prisoners will significantly enhance Hamas' prestige, but that is ultimately another matter altogether - Israel will pay a dear price for dragging its feet. And what did the chatterers in the public square do to bolster Hamas' rival? For an answer to that question, ask Mahmoud Abbas why he has decided to resign.
The real question now is not what kind of victory Hamas will come away with, but what Israel is likely to lose. If Shalit is not freed because of Israel's inspections of bloodied hands, if he continues to suffocate in his dungeon, Israel will lose a living soldier, a living human being. His blood will be on the government's hands. But Shalit will not disappear - every day he will be lost all over again, and these talks will turn into an endless discourse, just one confined to the public square.
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