Israel Must Do Everything to Bring Soldiers Home

Nehemia Shtrasler
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Air force navigator Ron Arad, in an image published in 2008.
Nehemia Shtrasler

Two episodes that have haunted us for many years coincidentally came up again this week: the captures of Ron Arad and Gilad Shalit. Nothing is crueler than captivity. My father, Naftali, enlisted in the British Army in 1941 as part of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps to fight the Germans, and was taken prisoner by the Nazis that same year, in Kalamata, Greece. He spent four terrible years in captivity until he was freed in 1945. Perhaps this is why it is a sensitive subject for me, or maybe Arad and Shalit’s fates are a sensitive subject for everyone.

In any case, Naftali Bennett mentioned Arad during his speech in the Knesset this week. He announced that Mossad operatives undertook a “complex and daring” mission last month to uncover new information about the fate of the air force navigator who was taken prisoner by Amal in October 1986, after he had to eject from his plane near Sidon.

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As soon as Bennett finished speaking, he was bombarded by critics who insisted he shouldn’t have said anything, and that the operation was anyway a failure. Well, first of all, the operation was a success. It focused and advanced the efforts to locate Arad’s body. And more importantly, Bennett’s remarks sent a message to the public that the nation does not abandon its fighters. Rather, it continuously makes a supreme effort to uncover their fate and bring them home, even after 35 years. This important value of mutual responsibility is crucial when sending soldiers into battle.

Which is precisely why harsh criticism is justified for our leaders who did not undertake a prisoner swap for Arad, who was last seen alive in May 1988, a year-and-a-half after he fell into captivity. Arad was apparently killed after that. Throughout that initial period, there were contacts with Amal for a prisoner swap, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin refused to close the deal.

They did not want to be exposed to criticism for having released terrorists “with blood on their hands.” But this is absurd. On the one hand, dozens of extremely dangerous operations have been carried out behind enemy lines over the years, attempting to locate Arad’s body, and on the other hand, we’re not willing to take the risk in releasing terrorists, when the upside is tremendous: the return of a soldier alive.

This week, Noam Shalit was interviewed on the tenth anniversary of his son Gilad’s release from Hamas captivity in Gaza. In 2009, mediator Ofer Dekel reached an arrangement for a prisoner swap with Hamas, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, like Shamir and Rabin before him, refused to close the deal. He, too, wanted to avoid the criticism it would bring. He, too, said that killers with “blood on their hands” mustn’t be released. But that’s rubbish. Both sides have blood on their hands. The terrorists do, but so did Shamir, and Rabin, and Olmert, too, as soon as he launched the Second Lebanon War. And war is no game of checkers.

After Shalit’s release (in a deal closed by Benjamin Netanyahu), Olmert gave an interview in which he disparaged the soldier who was ransomed, implying that he hadn’t fought hard enough before he was captured. What did he want – for Shalit who was surprised at five in the morning to try shooting and then come home in a casket, like his two comrades who were killed?

When the price of the deal was made public, Netanyahu was harshly criticized for releasing 1,027 terrorists. This criticism rings hollow as well – If the terrorists released in the Shalit deal had remained in prison, others would have committed the terror attacks that some of them went on to commit. There is no vacuum when it comes to terrorism. But without the deal, Shalit would have vanished in Gaza and left a festering wound in the Israeli national consciousness, just like Ron Arad, whose abandonment continues to eat away at the strength and resilience of Israeli society and the military.

Every soldier wants to know that the government will do everything it can to rescue him from captivity. If we abandon POWs, soldiers will think twice before running ahead on the battlefield. Therefore, the price that was paid for Shalit was justified. If only it had been paid for Arad as well.

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