Heart says yes but head says no to swap with Hamas for Israeli soldier


ERUSALEM — - A prisoner-swap deal is under way in which Israeli POW Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza for more than 1,000 days, is to be exchanged for close to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The debate here over this is heated.

Recently, on my way to work, I passed by the street in Jerusalem leading to the prime minister's mansion. A tent has been standing there for the past three years, with people wearing T-shirts with Mr. Shalit's picture and picketing with fliers.


While waiting for the light to turn green, a boy approached my car and pointed to the sign he was carrying: "Honk for the release of Gilad Shalit." My heart said, Honk, but my head said: Don't. As much as I want this boy to return to his family, I'm worried that this would only encourage more kidnapping and blackmail. Not to mention the price of releasing those murderers, namely, more potential innocent Israeli victims in the future.

In Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Lev. 19:16). However, not at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages has already cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.


He arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: "It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth." He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

However, the current deal is probably going to be carried out anyway because the precedent was set a long time ago. In January 1957, after the Sinai Campaign, Israel returned to Egypt some 5,000 POWs for one Israeli pilot, Jonathan Etkes. Something of the sort happened in the Six-Day War.

The difference is that then we were talking about POWs, while today we are asked, in exchange of Gilad Shalit, to release terrorists who carried out or sent others to carry out vile atrocities against civilians.

Yet even with regard to terrorists, the precedent has been set. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers who had been abducted by the Jibril organization. Many of the released prisoners went back to their bloody business, becoming the leaders of the first intifada.

Why can't Israel act like the United States, which doesn't make any deals about its POWs?

When American pilot Michael Durant was captured by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid's men in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 (the "Black Hawk Down" incident), former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley sent the following message to Mr. Aidid: "[W]e have to rescue him, and whether we have the right place or the wrong place, there's going to be a fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in here now. An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships ... the works. Once the fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole part of the city will be destroyed, men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything. ... That would really be tragic for all of us, but that's what will happen." Mr. Durant was released right away.

Yet Israel is not mighty America, which can make its own rules. And there is also the Israeli ethos of never leaving our fighting men and women behind. Once they know every possible effort will be made to rescue them, their motivation will know no limits. But again, at what price?

Back to that street in Jerusalem. As the light remained agonizingly red, the boy came closer, obviously wondering what was the matter with me, why I wasn't honking my horn. Finally, I produced the weakest honking possible. The light turned green, and I quickly drove away. If the boy I left behind was perplexed by my honking, so was I.


Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. His e-mail is