The New York Times Magazine – November 9, 2011

This New York Times Magazine cover story dealt with one of the most delicate issues in Israel – the price the country is willing to pay in order to get its POWs home, alive or dead. It explains the unbelievable exchange in which a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was considered to be worth 1,027 Palestinians. 

From the story:

 I have covered Israeli hostage and M.I.A. cases for more than 15 years, including the covert ways in which Israel’s powerful espionage agencies operate to bring soldiers home alive or dead. Over that time, the issue has come to dominate public discourse to a degree that no one could have predicted. Israeli society’s inability to tolerate even a single soldier held in captivity results in popular movements that have tremendous impact on strategic decisions made by the government. The issue has become a generator of history rather than an outcome of it.

Why this is the case is difficult to say, because it requires a plumbing of the Israeli psyche. Certainly, part of it has to do with a Jewish tradition that sanctifies life, and with the necessity for Jews of a proper burial. And part, too, is rooted in the tradition expressed by Maimonides, that there is no greater religious duty than the redemption of prisoners — a powerful idea in a country whose citizens are required to be soldiers. As Noam Shalit emphasized, there is an “unwritten contract” between the government and its soldiers.

On the day Shalit was released, the country held its breath. Service in banks came to a halt because clerks could not stop watching the live video of Shalit’s movements, from Gaza to Egypt and then from Egypt to Israel. All over the country, banners and signs were hung, welcoming him home. Gilad was everyone’s son, everyone’s brother. To Israelis, his release was arguably the most significant event of the last 10 years. The exuberance at his return drowned out whatever protests existed of the deal that was made to bring him home.

It is hard to fathom the price Israel paid for Shalit without placing it in the context of previous prisoner swaps, originally with Palestinian organizations and later with Hezbollah. The first to grasp how sensitive Israeli public opinion was on the issue of hostages and M.I.A.’s — and therefore what a powerful weapon abduction could be — was Ahmed Jibril, the leader of a faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1979, Israel reluctantly agreed to its first disproportionate exchange with a guerrilla organization when Jibril insisted on getting 76 P.L.O. members in exchange for one hostage.

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