MANY ISRAELIS, and many friends of Israel in the West, think there is something to be admired in the lopsided deal that will free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners -- including hundreds of terrorists serving life sentences for murder -- in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in 2006 and held virtually incommunicado ever since.
Gilad Shalit speaks to his parents by phone after being released from captivity in Gaza, October 18, 2011.
According to an opinion poll published Monday, 79 percent of the Israeli public approves of the swap, with only 14 percent opposed. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the agreement last week, he described it as evidence that "the nation of Israel is a unique people; we are all mutually responsible for each other." In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal echoed a popular opinion when it explained Israel's willingness to pay such a steep price for Shalit's freedom as "a testament to its national and religious values, which stress the obligation to redeem captives."
Israel is famous for its ironclad commitment never to abandon its captured or fallen soldiers. In a country where nearly every family has loved ones in uniform, the anguish of the Shalits -- whose son was just 19 when Hamas gunmen crossed the border from Gaza and grabbed him -- was a nightmare with which all Israelis could empathize. Across Israel's often volatile political spectrum, the longing for Shalit's return was universal and heartfelt.
But this is not the way to bring him home.
According to the deal Netanyahu has accepted, Hamas is to release Shalit today; simultaneously Israel will release a first wave of 477 Palestinian prisoners. A second, even larger group, will be freed in two months.
Just who are these prisoners? They include the perpetrators of some of the most ghastly terrorist attacks of recent years: Brutal killers like Abd al-Aziz Salehi, who gleefully displayed his blood-soaked hands to a cheering Ramallah crowd in 2000 after lynching two Israelis and mutilating their bodies. Like Ibrahim Yunis, mastermind of a 2003 cafe bombing that left seven innocents dead, including an American-born doctor and his 20-year-old daughter on the eve of her wedding. Like Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian television personality who boasts of her role in organizing the 2001 bombing of the Sbarro's pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem, in which 15 people were killed, seven of them children.
To read the descriptions of the prisoners being released is to be reminded in gruesome detail of the unremitting savagery of Israel's worst enemies, and of the horrors they are prepared to commit in their bid to destroy the Jewish state. It is also to be reminded that Israel has done this before -- and that the results have invariably been disastrous.
Time and again Israel has agreed to free hundreds of violent terrorists in order to bring home one or two or three captured Israeli soldiers. And time and again it has done so knowing that many of those set free will go right back to trying to kill Jews. One of the Palestinians being released today, for example, is Musab Hashlemon, who was given 17 life sentences for a Beersheba massacre he planned in 2004. That massacre occurred just months after an earlier prisoner exchange in which 435 Palestinians went free -- Hashlemon among them. The Jerusalem Post, citing the Almagor Terror Victims Association, noted last week that 183 Israelis have died since 2004 in attacks carried out by terrorists who were previously released. How many more Israelis will now die because the political pressure to bring Shalit home -- at any price -- was more than the Israeli government could resist?
There was a time when Netanyahu would have been the first to denounce the mass release of dangerous prisoners. In 2008, he blasted the release, under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, of some 200 security prisoners as a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinian Authority. "This crossing of a line, this release of murderers, is a dangerous move in the war on terror," Netanyahu thundered in the Knesset. "This weakens Israel and strengthens the terror elements."
For Gilad Shalit and his loved ones, a terrible personal ordeal is finally coming to an end. But their relief is being purchased at an unconscionable cost. To bring Shalit home, the Jewish state has effectively condemned tens -- or scores, or even hundreds -- of other victims to death. This is capitulation to terror. Israel's friends should be appalled.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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