Israel Should Mourn Prisoner Release

Israel will pay dearly for Gilead Shalit's freedom.

It could—perhaps should—have been a day of national mourning. On Tuesday Israel released 477 Palestinian security prisoners, most of them accomplished murderers, mostly of women and children, in exchange for one Israeli soldier. Another 550 prisoners will be released in two months in the deal's second stage. To judge by what followed similar mass prisoner "exchanges" over the past two decades, at least some of those released can be expected to return to terrorism, killing more Israelis, perhaps many more. And Hamas, the Islamist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, took Corporal Gilead Shalit hostage in a cross-border raid five years ago and negotiated the deal, has chalked up an enormous success, making a Hamas victory in the next Palestinian general election (probably in 2012) more than likely.

Yet for Israeli Jews, Tuesday was a day of mass, humane rejoicing as almost all celebrated the return of "their" hostage, held in a dank cellar beneath a Gazan refugee camp in virtual isolation for half a decade without contact with his family, other Israelis or the Red Cross. The Israelis behaved as if they had just won a victory. A happy crowd of smiling, flag- and flower-waving Israelis greeted Shalit as he arrived by helicopter at his home village of Mitzpeh Hila in the Galilee, and most other Israeli Jews spent much of the day glued happily to TV screens. Few talked about the price or the portents for the future. There was genuine, mass, spontaneous joy, as if a family member, almost lost, had miraculously returned home after five years in hell. Shalit looked pale and thin, but in the coerced, awkward interview he gave to Egyptian television during the release process he appeared to have all his wits about him.

In agreeing to this studendously lopsided "exchange"—and Israel, according to Hamas spokesmen, had also committed as part of the deal to easing its semi-blockade of the Gaza Strip—Israel behaved like an extended family. Critics of the deal said that, given its geopolitical situation, Israel needed to behave like a state. (The United States and Britain, for example, refuse, as a matter of policy, to negotiate or concede anything to hostage takers.) But on Tuesday the citizens and leaders of the Jewish state allowed themselves to bask in their sense of solidarity.

Among Palestinians there was also much celebration and joy as the busloads of prisoners reached the Gaza Strip (where hundreds of thousands gathered), the West Bank (where thousands of Hamas supporters, long suppressed by Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, came out to cheer) and a number of Israeli Arab villages. The Palestinians, too, spoke of "victory" (in their case, Allah-given). But their festivities, especially in Gaza, were overtly political and laced with bellicosity. Spokesman after spokesman, and many of those interviewed in the crowds, vowed that they would continue the jihad until Israel was eliminated; meanwhile, they promised fresh attacks on Israel, especially ones designed to take hostages to obtain further prisoner releases.

Many Israeli observers suggested that the mass release would not only heighten the motivation among Hamas members to take new hostages but would also prompt the rival (ostensibly secular) Fatah Party operatives to undertake hostage-taking operations in order to compete with the Hamas for Palestinian hearts and minds and gain the release of major Fatah figures still in Israeli jails. The mass prisoner release, which included some Fatah members and a handful of Israeli Arabs, has significantly weakened the Palestinian "peace camp.”

One Hamas supporter, "Abdullah," interviewed in Ramallah by Avi Issacharov of the Israeli daily Haaretz, put it this way: "This [i.e., Palestine] is Muslim land. The Jews came from abroad, so they can live here as citizens under a Muslim state. . . . The future is Islam's. In all the Arab countries, and now also in the West, this is understood, and the first place in which Islam is resurgent is Palestine." "The people want another Shalit,” was a slogan chanted by the crowds both in Ramallah and Gaza.

But from the Arab side there also emerged one note providing grounds for optimism. The oldest of the released prisoners was 82-year-old Sami Yunes from Arara village in northern Israel. In 1980, he helped murder an Israeli soldier. He told the crowd that greeted him as he arrived home: "Since the Oslo [peace] process [of the 1990s] I have become a soldier for peace. Sixty years of bloodshed is enough. For our children's sake, the only solution is peace."