Israel Must Not Renege on Promise It Makes to All Soldiers' Families

The government must remember that you don’t leave a soldier behind, and you don’t leave their family behind, either.

Herzl, Oron Shaul's father, at the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, July 3, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The families of the soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul object to the Shamgar Committee’s report, and rightly so. The report calls to avoid mass prisoner releases in prisoner-exchange deals and to refrain from releasing prisoners for the bodies of Israeli combatants.

“Adopting the report means destroying the people’s army. As long as there are prisoners of war, you don’t change the laws that bind the government,” the families say. They’re right. In the unofficial contract between the state and its citizens, Israelis are willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their sons to protect it – because they know the state will take care of them if they are wounded, try to rescue them if necessary, and honor their memory and help their families if they are killed.

The Shamgar report reflects the desire of some people to change the contract, to make an allowance for the state. Part of the public feels the price Israel paid for Gilad Shalit’s life was too high [1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit] and that the “mistake” must not be repeated. They believe the state must insist on a lower “price” for the lives of Israeli prisoners of war, and if they’re dead – Israel shouldn’t give any Palestinian prisoners in exchange.

Raviv Drucker articulated this feeling when he wrote about the media’s mobilization to the families’ struggle (Haaretz, July 20). “Now it’s happening again, but it’s even crazier [in Shalit’s case] there was a live soldier to bring home. In this case, not even that exists.”

And Rogel Alpher wrote that “a popular protest movement ‘to bring the boys home’ doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead. The living and the dead are of equal value” (Haaretz Hebrew, June 28).

Regrettably, the distinction between the living and the dead is clear to the Goldin and Shaul families – and not only to them. Drucker and Alpher seemingly thought they must point out that the emperor has no clothes, because they felt the media was getting carried away praising his new clothes. But they are the blind ones. Obviously it’s not the same thing, and Israel will pay a higher price for living prisoners of war than for dead soldiers. You don’t need a special report for that; common sense will suffice.

But also, we must not get carried away in stressing the distinction between the living and the dead, as though the dead have no value. Nietzsche said, “Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.”

The dead soldier is part of the fabric of his family. You don’t leave a soldier behind, and you don’t leave a family behind. If Israel fails to honor its basic commitment to the soldier, in his life and death, to his memory and to members of his family and their need to bury him according to their faith and mourn at his grave, in the name of what values will it ask him to voluntarily risk and even sacrifice his life for it?

It’s no coincidence that while efforts are being made to reduce the state’s concessions in exchange for abducted soldiers and prisoners of war, the so-called Hannibal Directive – in which soldiers were ordered to stop abductions, even if it put the lives of their captured colleagues at risk – has thrived (like in Gaza 2014). This, despite the fact that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot recently revoked it.

If Israel prefers a dead soldier to an abducted one, even if it has to kill him itself, it would indeed be foolish to pay to get his body back. But if this is Israel’s approach, what will it say to its soldiers? Who will want to volunteer in such an army? To risk and sacrifice his life? To save a fellow soldier?

How did it happen that Israelis see parents’ natural insistence on getting the body of their son – who died protecting the homeland – as an indulgence, and would prefer instead to reduce the price of life and death, instead of demanding that the state increase its efforts to end the blood cycle? Well, that’s a question for psychology books.

The high price demanded by Hamas for Israeli soldiers is not set by a committee’s price list, but in the battlefield – based on the ratio between the number of Israeli and Palestinian fatalities, and on the balance of power between Israel and Hamas. Changing the contract between Israel and its citizens and the abandonment of soldiers, by refusing to pay the highest price in times of loss, could cost Israel its victories and, certainly, human lives.