“For this reason was man created alone, to teach that whoever destroys a single life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)
When faced with the impossible choice – whether to protect the security interests of the State of Israel whilst sacrificing a single soul, or save one life and in the process release over one thousand terrorists who took many lives and make take scores more – the Israeli government and by extension the people of Israel elected to preserve a single life.
The decision to save Gilad Shalit – as part of a deal that saw the release of a disproportionate number of (1,027 Palestinian and Israeli Arab) prisoners responsible for some of the bloodiest atrocities to occur on Israeli soil in recent memory – is to the credit of those in Israel who lost family members and loved ones in those attacks. As Bradley Burston termed it in Haaretz, the deal speaks to “a remnant of an Israel which is fast disappearing. It is a remnant of a particular brand of quiet, exceptional courage”.
the risk he undertook… speaks not only to his courage, and the bravery of the Israeli people, but also to Judaism itself…
It is also just to commend Benjamin Netanyahu, who after all made the call on an agreement which witnessed the release into the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere of individuals who slaughtered some 599 Israelis, and maimed and disfigured many more. “This is still a difficult day,” Netanyahu told the media after Shalit’s reunion with his parents, Noam and Aviva, “because even though the price was lowered, it was heavy”.
The risk he undertook with this deal speaks not only to his courage, and the bravery of the Israeli people, but also to Judaism itself, a value system which sanctifies and places emphasis on the price of life, unlike those faiths which seem to believe that what happens after death is somehow more important.
The question the Shalit deal seems to have raised, as the New York Times so puts it, is the following:
“If Netanyahu can negotiate with Hamas — which shoots rockets at Israel, refuses to recognise Israel’s existence and, on Tuesday, vowed to take even more hostages — why won’t he negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority, which Israel relies on to help keep the peace in the West Bank?”
It is utterly mendacious, first of all, to create an equivalency between what took place between Israel and Hamas over Gilad Shalit, and the greater problem of coming up with a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The former was a hostage negotiation, whereby Hamas prised a unequal bounty out of Netanyahu by dangling the prospect of one man’s death over his head (evidently forgetting the Qur’an’s commandment, “If anyone saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind” (5:32)). Any talks between Netanyahu and Abbas would occur under more agreeable circumstances, free of preconditions.
“We urge the al-Qassam Brigades to kidnap more soldiers… (Yehiye Sinwar, Hamas Leader)
But the larger answer to the Times’ question can be discovered in an examination of the Palestinian response to the gift they received as part of this bargain. The response in Gaza to the repatriation of wanton criminals and murderers was a cocktail of jubilation and vitriol. A crowd of 100,000 Gazans lined to streets to welcome the released back to Palestinian territory. At a rally in the Strip’s capital the assembled cried, “We want another Shalit!” Yehiye Sinwar, a freshly unshackled Hamas leader, even stated clear as day, “We urge the al-Qassam Brigades to kidnap more soldiers to exchange them for the freedom of our loved ones who are still behind bars”.
This has come to be expected of Hamas, an organisation which, after all, does not recognise the right of the state they were bargaining with to exist. Yet on the West Bank – the territorial flank the Times asserts to be the moderate wing – the reaction was equally as strident. “We thank God for your return and your safety,” Mahmoud Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland”.
Abbas greeted the prisoners by adding that he wished soon that those freed would be reunited with such mass murderers as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sa’adat. Barghouti was the head of al-Tanzim, the armed wing of Abbas’ party Fatah, and was a leading figure responsible for the organisation of the al-Aqsa Intifada, which resulted in the deaths of 731 Israeli civilians between 2000 and 2008. Sa’adat led the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and ordered the 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
Gilad Shalit’s capture, imprisonment, possible torture, and its tawdry aftermath demonstrate that not only is the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians one of policy and principle – over borders, Jerusalem, and the right of return – but also a state of mind. Whilst families all across Israel were contemplating the nature of the deal they had shaken on to save one life, and remembering those struck down by the killers they had just set free, people across the West Bank and Gaza were lionising individuals complicit in some of the most grievous and heinous acts of terror to occur on Israeli soil.
Shalit’s life, back in his village of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel, is beginning to return to something which might be described as normalcy. “He’s begun going out of the house a little bit, riding his bicycle, he wants to take walks, he’s playing some ping-pong and he’s seeing some people, meeting childhood friends,” his father said. His freedom is something to be celebrated, and news such as this is uplifting. But five years of incarceration following a kidnapping will inevitably have deep psychological and physical consequences of which we do not and cannot yet know. His scars too are etched onto Israeli-Palestinian relations – greatly damaged by Shalit’s ordeal.