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Israel's 'Bottomless Wallet' of Prisoners

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Lior Lotan (right) faces the press following a meeting with the Mengistu family.
File photo: Lior Lotan (right) faces the press following a meeting with the Mengistu family. Credit: Ilan Assayag

To the parents of Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hisham Al-Sayid and Juma Abu Ghanima, finally, there’s a price quotation outlining what the government should pay to return your children, dead or alive. Lior Lotan, who has just resigned as coordinator of efforts to bring back prisoners and missing persons, has suggested an updated price list for 2017: For every abducted person or Israeli prisoner, Israel should “fill its wallet” with 200 of “their” abductees, and that’s the basis on which Israel should conduct negotiations.

But the defense minister has a competing offer. In an interview on the Walla news site, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said there are only two possibilities for freeing the Israelis: “War or surrender.” And generally speaking, Israel must not fall into the trap Hamas prepared for it in the Gilad Shalit affair.

This controversy might be resolved by a document issued by the Shamgar Committee on abductees and prisoners, whose principles Lieberman has declared he accepts. The public obviously doesn’t know what criteria have been decided upon in this document. It is believed to be based on a ratio of one for one, with priority to soldiers captured or abducted in wartime, and only then, to civilians who crossed the border by mistake or on purpose.

Lotan’s proposal, like Lieberman’s decisive declaration, is a foolish attempt to absolve the state of responsibility for its soldiers and civilians. To the average patriot, who considers abductees and prisoners to be an operational failure to which no additional payment should be added, these are statements that show an appropriate national backbone. The patriot loves a strong stand, and especially the soldiers who have been killed, who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The patriot also admires the actions of Goldin and Shaul during Operation Protective Edge, but their role ended with their death, and any payment for the return of their bodies erodes the greatness of their actions.

As for citizens Mengistu, Sayid and Abu Ghanima, one Ethiopian and the others Arab, to the patriot, they are just mentally ill civilians and the precious money of the national wallet shouldn’t be wasted on them. It will be interesting to see how many people come to the rally planned for Sunday night in Habima Square in Tel Aviv to mark three years since Mengistu was taken prisoner.

But beyond the state’s responsibility to bring back all of its abducted citizens, without rating them by their importance, ethnic origin or color, the term “prisoner wallet” is particularly infuriating. Lotan isn’t the best at verbalizing things; he has already stirred up a storm. But he represents the world of shopkeepers, where there’s nothing wrong with abducting enemy fighters and civilians for the purpose of negotiating. They’re merely merchandise, and what Hezbollah and Hamas is allowed to do, Israel is allowed to do too. But there is a huge difference. Not because Israel is the paragon of morality as opposed to those groups, but because in contrast to them, Israel has a fat purse that’s bursting with human cash.

According to the website of HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, there are 6,279 security prisoners in Israel, most of them serving life sentences, some waiting for trial and another 465 who will not be brought to trial because they are administrative detainees (held without charges). According to Lotan’s formula, Israel has enough of a supply to secure the release of more than 30 Israeli abductees. The great thing about this supply is that it’s endless. It’s a reservoir that fills up by itself. For every thousand prisoners released, another thousand can be deposited in the wallet, and so on right through the generations, that is, until peace comes.

According to this accounting, Israel has to release at most 800 prisoners to get its citizens back. It could be that Hamas, which relates to its prisoners as a national asset, is demanding many more and that’s what the negotiations are about. But when the defense minister says “war or surrender,” before he puts his hand into the “wallet,” he makes clear that Israel’s citizens are not an asset, they are pawns in the service of ideology.

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