Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Freedman - Rethinking the Shalit exchange

Rabbi Binny Freedman
The Jewish Star
18 October '11
H/T Israel Matzav,2771

I can still see his eyes and his twinkling smile as I walked him to the bus, with his rucksack over his back and a pair of ‘kafkafim’ (shower shoes) tied on and dangling from a piece of string.

It was Sunday night, the first week of June 1982 and once again Israel was at war. After incessant shelling from the PLO in Lebanon forcing the people in northern Israel into their bomb shelters all weekend, Israel had finally had enough. AT 5 a.m. on June 5, IDF forces crossed the border into Lebanon. That evening, Rav Amital z”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion strode into the study hall at the beginning of the evening study session, banged on the lectern, announcing, “All fourth and fifth year students should head back to their rooms and pack their gear. In half an hour buses will be coming to take you north.“

The silence in the study hall was palpable; our friends and comrades were going to war. I was still a greenhorn American, barely a year in the country and a full year away from my own IDF service. I walked back to the dorms to say goodbye to a few of my Israeli friends.

Twenty minutes later, Zack Baumel came out of his room with his rucksack and shower shoes, and the incongruity of it puzzled me. I asked him, “Why do you need those if you’re going to war?” Zack responded,“ Are you kidding? These are the most important things you can take to the army!”

That was the last time I saw Zack Baumel. I distinctly remember walking him to the bus; remember waving goodbye and seeing his grin flash one more time from the bus window, and remember wondering what was really waiting for him.

A few days later, Zack’s tank was hit in a battle with Syrian tanks and commando forces near Sultan Ya’koub, and although we know he escaped the tank alive, along with Tzvi Feldman, neither of them have been seen or heard from since.

They, along with Israel’s other MIA, Yehuda Katz, who also went missing in the same battle; Ron Arad, an air force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986; Guy Hever who went missing on the Golan heights nearly 15 years ago; and Omar Souad, taken in 2001, are the forgotten Israeli soldiers who are very much on my mind this week.

G-d willing, this week, in the midst of the festival of Sukkot, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas since his brazen abduction in 2006, will finally come home. There is not be a Jew anywhere on earth who does not smile and even hold back a tear at the thought that the anguish and suffering of this family, who have become the family of an entire people, will finally end.

But this poignant moment is coming with a terrible price. No less than a thousand terrorist prisoners, many with blood on their hands, will be released. And the atrocities they collectively perpetrated are some of the most horrific terrorist actions in the history of Israel.

These are the men who helped plan and execute the Sbarro’s pizzeria bombing murdering 15 innocent civilians and wounding an additional 130. They blew up buses and university cafeterias, murdering children and grandparents with not a second thought, killing hundreds, wounding thousands and leaving tens of thousands of parents siblings, children, wives and close friends behind to mourn the loss of their loved ones, and contemplate a life forever changed by the refusal of a fanatical band of murderers to accept even the possibility of living in peace with a people that have never wanted anything more than to bring light into the world and live in peace with their neighbors.

This is not the first time Israel has released a large and disproportionate number of terrorists in order to bring our boys home. We did it to get back what turned out to be the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, as well as much earlier in exchange for kidnapped Israeli citizen Elchanan Tannenbaum. But the first instance of such an exchange actually took place in 1984 in what was known as the ‘Jibril deal’.

In exchange for bringing home a few live Israeli soldiers and bodies, including Hezi Shai, who was Zack Baumel’s tank commander, Israel for the first time negotiated, through intermediaries, with Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, releasing 1,050 prisoners. Among the released was Lod Airport Massacre perpetrator Kozo Okamoto, and Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin.

I still remember the late Yonah Baumel’s stance on that deal. Even though his son was still held prisoner, he was vehemently against the deal, believing that it would open up a Pandora’s Box that would give terrorists free license to kidnap Israelis in general, and Israeli soldiers in particular.

If anyone had the right to an opinion, it was certainly Yonah Baumel. And yet, one wonders if his position against negotiating with terrorists (or at least agreeing to completely lopsided exchanges) lest a line be crossed, might well be the reason that his opposition no longer applies. After a number of such prisoner exchanges, the deterrence no longer exists.

Yet, we have crossed a new line this time, as the nature of the terrorists we are releasing includes a large number of murderers with actual blood on the their hands, and suggests that we may be releasing individuals who will absolutely kill again. And of course, there is the fact that leaders of Hamas have already declared that they absolutely plan to kidnap more soldiers seeing that Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping produced such wonderful results from their perspective.

Some suggest that it is important to bring Gilad back home as IDF soldiers need to know that no matter what, the State of Israel will do everything to bring them home safely, and that this is important as it affects the morale of the soldiers. And yet, my son-in-law, currently a sergeant and headed for officer’s course in the elite recon unit of the Israeli paratroopers, upon hearing this suggestion at our Shabbat table this week, asked indignantly in whose name this argument was offered. After all, over the past 5 years, while Shalit has been in captivity, the percentage of recruits signing up for combat units in the IDF has actually gone up. And he remarked that he knows of not a single soldier who decided not to join a combat unit due to the story of Gilad Shalit. If anything, the opposite is true.

And just to complicate things even further, there are the theological questions. It is interesting that the large majority of the religious right wing in Israel is vehemently against this exchange for reasons expressed above (though they will be as happy as everyone else for the Shalit family). And yet, specifically from the religious perspective, one might contemplate an entirely different position. After all, it seems this exchange will happen, so it must be G-d’s will. And in the end whatever tragedy may, G-d forbid, occur at the hands of these terrorists in the future, must also be the will of G-d, or else it would not happen.

And of course, there is the fact that a Jewish soldier being held captive for five years is a terrible hillul Hashem, in which case freeing that soldier must be a kiddush Hashem. Unless of course one considers the fact that Hamas held out and got what Israel said it would never give, which is itself a huge hillul Hashem, demonstrated by the huge celebrations in Gaza, and the various despots lining up to congratulate Hamas on bringing Israel to submission, all of which of course is a tremendous hillul Hashem.

In short, one does not envy the Prime Minister who has to make such decisions, and I envy those who can say with absolutely certainty that they know what the right decision is in this case.

There is one more thing worth considering, which for some reason we seem to be missing, and that is, especially going forward, the way Hamas and our enemies perceive our actions, and what can and should be done as a deterrent, to ensure these scenarios do not continue to plague us in the future.

Unfortunately, we have been dealing with our enemies based on the way we see things. But that just does not match up with the way they see the world.

In many Jews’ and Israelis’ perspective, the fact that we are willing to release 1,000 prisoners just to get one man, demonstrates our value of life as paramount and above all else, and the fact that we are willing to cross our own red lines, bespeaks a genuine desire for peace and compromise, and a love for each individual soldier as if he were our own. What strength of character we have!

But that is just not the way they see it. In the Arab worldview, Hamas held out and got us to capitulate, demonstrating our weakness. It is not accidental that the first Intifada started after Ehud Barak offered the most far reaching concessions any Israeli Prime minister had ever offered, as well as unilaterally pulling out of Lebanon, and the most intense and protracted missile barrage from Gaza came after we pulled out of Gush Katif.

Going forward, perhaps another piece of wisdom shared with me by Yonah Baumel is worth contemplating:

In the 1980s there were numerous kidnappings of foreign citizens in Lebanon. Most notable amongst them was the Rev. Terry Anderson, an American held in captivity for eight years; three of them with a sack over his head and chained to a wall in a shed like an animal.

Yonah shared with me that around the same time, the Amal Militia in Lebanon kidnapped two Soviet diplomats. But the Russians do not think like Westerners. The very next day, the Russians kidnapped two Amal commanders, and sent a box to Amal headquarters in Beirut with two index fingers and two ears, and a message saying the Amal militia would receive two new body parts every day until they ran out of body parts, and then they would kidnap two new Amal commanders and start over again. The two Russian diplomats were released the very next day.

Makes me wonder whether we need to re-think the box we have opened, and at least going forward, start to deal with our enemies in ways they can understand.

Rabbi Freedman is the Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City and a survivor of the Sbarro's Pizzeria suicide bombing in August 2001. He is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at

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