The Slippery Slope of Prisoner Swaps

Failures of politicians, rivalries between intelligence organizations and in-the-box thinking - all have contributed to a situation where Israel pays unreasonable prices for the return of captives.

Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
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Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur

The deal for the return of Gilad Shalit is the most salient manifestation of the unwritten contract between the State of Israel and the young citizens it drafts into its army. As part of the organizational culture of the Israel Defense Forces, about which a consensus exists in society, army commanders make it clear to new recruits that "the IDF does not leave wounded soldiers in the field" and that even if they are taken captive, "the state and the IDF will do everything to bring them back home."

IDF officers and civilian policy makers who have engaged in negotiations for the return of POWs also find support and reinforcement for this approach in Jewish tradition. Indeed, the precept of pidyon shevuyim (the ransoming of captives ) carries great importance in halakha (religious law ). Maimonides, who was among the greatest of arbiters, wrote that the redeeming of captives takes precedence over supporting or clothing the poor. There is no greater mitzvah, he added, than redeeming captives, for they are hungry, thirsty and unclothed, but also in existential danger.

The Jibril prisoner exchange. The release of convicted terrorists ‘with blood on their hands’ enlarges the pool of those motivated to strike again.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

So crucial is this precept that twice a week, Jews recite this prayer: "As for our brethren, the whole house of Israel, such of them as are given over to trouble or captivity, whether they be on the sea or the dry land ... May the All-present have mercy on them, and bring them forth from trouble to deliverance, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption, now speedily and at a near time" (from "The Authorized Daily Prayer Book," by Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, 1952 ).

Indeed, Israel has always made great efforts to bring captives home. In the case of soldiers taken prisoner on enemy soil, usually in wartime, the rules were quite clear: Negotiations were held with the country in question, and the price for the return of the POWs was set. In most cases the price Israel paid was high - usually because in wars, the number of enemy soldiers captured by the IDF was far higher than the number of Israeli soldiers taken captive by the Arab armies. The postwar prisoner exchange deals did not generate a public debate and were fully accepted by the public.

For example, after the Sinai War of 1956, Israel returned 5,500 Egyptian soldiers for four IDF POWs. In the Six-Day War of 1967, 15 Israeli soldiers were taken captive (11 in Egypt, one in Syria, two in Iraq and one in Lebanon ); to obtain their return, Israel handed back 4,338 soldiers and 889 civilians to Egypt, 533 soldiers and 366 civilians to Jordan, and 367 soldiers and 205 civilians to Syria. In the Yom Kippur War, 242 IDF soldiers were captured by Egypt, 68 by Syria and four by Lebanon. To get them back, Israel released 8,372 POWs to Egypt and 392 to Syria.

This sort of arrangement, along with the general consensus over prisoner exchanges, began to go awry when Israel was compelled to negotiate with terrorist organizations for the release of its soldiers. The capture and abduction of soldiers and civilians by the various Palestinian terrorist organizations and by Hezbollah confronted Israeli governments with a new type of dilemma: The candidates for exchange were no longer soldiers from regular armies, for whom there are known rules of the game, and to whom the rules of the various Geneva Conventions apply. The agonizing was now over whether to free terrorists who perpetrated murderous attacks in return for any abducted Israelis. And after the decision was made to free even convicted terrorists, the question of the price arose - because, again, the wounded are not left in the field, and ransom must be arranged.

Thus began a lengthy series of blunders and the loss of direction which have since characterized Israeli governments' handling of the freeing of captives and abductees, including Shalit. The governments exploited - and are continuing to exploit - the public's short memory, as well as their authority to use military censors to hide their blunders and failures in conducting negotiations for the release of captured soldiers and civilians.

The weakness of the politicians, who have proved unable to cope with the pressure exerted by the families, combined with mistaken calculations, unrestrained competition and rivalries between Israeli intelligence organizations, and in-the-box thinking - all these have contributed to the descent, along a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies the payment of an unreasonable price for the return of live prisoners and even of bodies.

The slippery slope down which governments slid is reflected in numbers. On January 1, 1970, Shmuel Rosenwasser, a night watchman in Metullah, was abducted by Fatah. The exchange deal was done 14 months later: In exchange for Rosenwasser, Israel freed one Fatah man, Mahmoud Hijazi. On March 14, 1979, Avraham Amram, a soldier captured in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril's organization, was released. This time the payment was 76 PLO men, 20 of them "with blood on their hands." On May 22, 1985, the famous "Jibril deal" was implemented: three soldiers in return for 1,150 terrorists turned over to Jibril's organization.

That deal constituted the fault line after which the earth opened up. The high price, in terms of the number of terrorists who were freed in the Jibril deal, became not only the point of reference of the Palestinian organizations in later deals; it also contributed mightily to their motivation to abduct more soldiers. In the end, it appears that the sacrosanct precept of the ransom of captives backfired.

Back to terror

The implications of the exaggerated price Israel pays for the release of captives or bodies go far beyond the numerical asymmetry. The release of convicted terrorists "with blood on their hands" enlarges the pool of terrorists who possess the motivation to strike at Israel again. That was one of the major reasons for the opposition of the former head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, to the deal with Hamas for Shalit's release, which involves over 1,000 prisoners. He believed that many would go back to terrorism.

In fact, experience shows that this is a well-grounded concern. Of the 364 prisoners released in the Tennenbaum deal of January 2004 (involving the return to Israel of civilian Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers ), who went back to the occupied territories, 30 percent were re-arrested by Israel for terrorist activities. Of 238 prisoners freed in the Jibril deal who returned to the territories, 48 percent were imprisoned again. One of them, Louie Sa'adi, established a broad infrastructure for terrorist attacks in the northern West Bank after his release, which led to 30 Israelis being killed and another 300 wounded. He was liquidated in 2005.

Israeli governments failed time and again to formulate a rational policy, resulting in mistaken decisions; sometimes the policy makers lost their heads.

"There is no issue in which Israel is in a greater position of inferiority than that of prisoner deals," Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council, is quoted as saying in Ronen Bergman's 2009 book "By Any Means Necessary." "All the pressure is on us," Eiland continues, "and when you deal only with this, you really arrive at insane formulas - such as those Hamas is demanding in the Shalit deal."

In the end, the "insane formula" was accepted and Israel is releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom participated in terrorist actions which took the lives of many Israeli civilians.

There is also another sad and disturbing dimension to the negotiations with Hamas for Shalit's release: The deal could have been struck more than four years ago. The price demanded by Hamas at that time was very similar to what was eventually paid. The reason the deal was not consummated then lies in ego wars, personal-image considerations and popularity ratings of the prime ministers who dealt with the issue.

A comparison of Hamas' demands more than four years ago with the list that was finally agreed on shows only minor differences - certainly not any that justify dragging out the negotiations for almost five years. Even though it was clear that Shalit could not be freed without the release of many hundreds of prisoners, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert preferred to portray himself as refusing to knuckle under to the demands of Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also tried to project determination and staying power, even when it was clear that the price for Shalit's release could not be changed substantively.

More than two years ago, the government of Israel, whose ministers were aware of the slippery slope down which the country slid in negotiations with terrorist organizations over time, set up a committee chaired by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar in order to formulate clear rules and procedures for future exchange deals involving captives and abductees. Its recommendations have not yet been made public, but it is very doubtful that there is any need for them.

The government must now decide on a change of policy and announce it publicly. It must assert that henceforth there will be no more negotiations with terrorist organizations for the release of abductees. Furthermore, in return for one abducted person, Israel will be ready to hand over one prisoner only. One captive for one prisoner; no more. Such a declaration might have the effect of greatly reducing the motivation of the various organizations to abduct soldiers. At present, given the exaggerated prices that our governments have agreed to pay, Hamas and Hezbollah are stepping up their attempts to snatch soldiers. A clear, firm Israeli policy could make it clear to them that such abductions will be pointless.

But is there any chance that the government will adopt this policy, announce it and, even more, implement it? That is very doubtful.



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