I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit for some time, mostly because my thoughts about his situation are jumbled. However, thanks to the urging and support of some friends, here are these thoughts in all their gory glory.
Before we get started, a little background information. Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was captured on June 25, 2006 on Israeli soil and has been held in Gaza by Hamas since then. He was 20 years old upon his capture and is now 23.
Hamas has not allowed international aid groups to visit him although they did release a video of Shalit this October in exchange for 20 female Palestinian detainees. Recent negotiations may result in the release of as many as 1,000 Palestinian detainees in exchange for Shalit's release.
The internal Israeli debate over the merits of the potential exchange is intense and incredibly emotional. This is one aspect of the conflict that is, in my opinion, not fully understood in the US. Then again, I am not sure it is possible for Americans to truly understand the emotional complexity of these issues since we lack direct experience.
For example, the US has a firm policy regarding terrorism; we do not negotiate with terrorists. Every American knows this if only from movies and TV shows. In a vacuum, this is the optimal policy. As one can see, paying ransoms, whether in the form of prisoners or money, simply begets more kidnapping. However, American military service is not analogous to Israeli military service because the US has a volunteer army and Israel does not.
The moral and morale calculus radically shifts when a nation's soldiers are not volunteers. American soldiers all signed up for service knowing that the US would not negotiate with, say, al Qaeda for their release if they were captured. However, Israeli soldiers are drafted. There are real, tangible negative consequences if one refuses military service and, consequently, benefits if one does serve.
There are good reasons why Israel chooses to use the coercive power of the state to push people toward military service. But the fact remains that coercion is necessary. The state has, by extension, greater responsibility to ensure their safety.
Everyone in Israel agrees that Gilad Shalit must return home. The argument is about the cost. Hundreds of the 1,000 Palestinian detainees named in the exchange already have Israeli blood on their hands. They have directly participated in killing Israelis either through planning or violent action. Thus, some have concluded that the release of such people would only lead to the death and/or capture of even more Israelis, making the entire exchange a colossal risk with no upside and a huge downside. In their eyes, the cost is too great.
But Gilad Shalit is more than a single Israeli soldier. He is not merely the son of Mr. and Mrs. Shalit. He is, in a way, everyone's son. All Israeli parents know that he could be their child. And if you were Gilad Shalit's parents, wouldn't you give up anything to get him back?
In purely pragmatic terms, it may also be important to troop morale for the IDF to secure Shalit's freedom. There are many Israeli soldiers who serve out of a sense of duty or obligation and nothing more. If given a choice, they certainly would not be soldiers. In exchange for this service, the IDF promises that it will do anything possible to make sure no soldier is left behind.
If the IDF reneges on this promise, then morale may be compromised. Non-service, already a problem, may increase. So to prevent further erosion of popular support and troop morale, any price is worth paying.
To be honest, I did not understand the visceral nature of this dilemma until very recently. It seemed like a fairly obvious decision from my detached American point of view. No negotiating with terrorists, period, end of story. 1,000 detainees for one guy? Um, are you kidding?
But as I heard Israelis debate the issue, my certainty gave way to doubt and, as I write, a sense of tearing, of being torn in two directions. It is not necessarily a separation of heart and mind. My mind and heart are truthfully divided neatly in two, with half of my heart siding with one side of my mind against the other halves. Do you let a young man go through a certain future of captivity and pain, or do you potentially condemn others to die in his place?
In some situations, distance gives perspective. But such decisions are not made by objective observers, blessed with emotional distance. They are made by those in the swirl, buffeted by tides of pain and passion and fear and love. It is so easy for those with little lose to give sage advice preaching patience and fortitude and calm resolve, to warn against giving in to anger. But it is far harder to follow that path when it is you who could lose everything.
This is why I have avoided writing about Gilad Shalit. My thoughts are drowned out by my frustration. Frustration that we live in a world where such choices must be made. Frustration that so few outside of Israel understand how difficult these decisions truly are. Frustration that I can be nothing more than frustrated.
So there you go. I hope this sparks some conversation in the United States and perhaps, help some of you understand this situation a little better.