The 'maths' behind the Shalit prisoner swap
An Australian employee of an Israeli lobby group was once asked to describe the nature of his work. "Crisis du jour", he responded. The Palestinian UN bid for Statehood was followed quickly by the deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which was almost immediately eclipsed by the macabre demise of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Before we move on yet again, a lingering aspect of the Shalit affair deserves attention.
Much has been made of the conspicuous disparity in the numbers of prisoners released by Israel, over one thousand, in exchange for a lone hostage. This is hardly surprising. Whatever the strategic calculations of the protagonists, for even the most dispassionate Australian observer it is at least a mathematical oddity that begs an explanation.
Certainly there is well argued reasoning that cites a military imbalance, or dogma, or the ascendancy of one tactical ideology over the other. But hardly heard, if at all in the general media, is the explanation that makes the most explicit and immediate sense. Israel made a moral decision. No matter how tortuous the negotiation that preceded Shalit's release, it is the moral calculation, once reached by the Netanyahu Government, that most readily reconciles the gross discrepancy in the numbers.
If the disparity in the numbers of prisoners exchanged is not a moral issue, then what? Clearly it is not a strategic reckoning, unless one believes placing convicted terrorists back on the street will somehow benefit Israel. Certainly it is not an appeal to Western internationalist favour, for as leftist commentator and former editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, David Landau, conceded, it is impossible to believe that any Western Government would accede to such a lopsided bargain, and certainly not without the prospect of a domestic revolt. Many Israelis and Diaspora Jews are proud of Israel's tortured decision precisely because it is foremost a moral choice.
Of course bald numbers do not alone tell the truth of this horror story. On 9 August 2001, 15 year old Australian-born Malki Roth was murdered in the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. She died alongside fourteen others, mostly children and teenagers, when West Bank terrorist Izzedine al-Masri entered the restaurant and detonated a bomb hidden in the guitar he held. He was driven to the restaurant by his accomplice, Ahlam Tamimi, who not only helped to plan the attack, but has also steadfastly refused to express any regret for the loss of life and critical injuries. Tamimi is one of the Palestinian prisoners freed to recover Shalit from his captives. It is her release that points to the true North of Israel's moral compass in the prisoner exchange.
Were Tamimi the only prisoner swapped for Shalit, or the only mass murderer who received a pardon for consecutive life sentences, it would be an act of moral courage. For each of the additional 1026 prisoners the moral barometer inches upwards. Most Israeli citizens would acknowledge they now risk another Sbarro attack from many of those released, and yet they agreed overwhelmingly to retrieve a single prisoner at a cost that makes no sense other than as a moral decision. A thousand or more Australian parents will next year send their children for a post-high school gap year in Israel, to study and work on philanthropic projects, and their support for Shalit's release, despite the increased risk to their children, is also a moral decision. It is worth remembering that had she lived, Malki Roth would now be the same age as Gilad Shalit, a very young woman with dreams and a future still intact.
What we choose to ignore is often the best measure of our morality. For commentators who see the prisoner swap as yet another example of Israel's infamy, there is in almost every case one word missing that alters the moral context of their accusations; Hamas. The Australian Federal Criminal Code provides for an organisation to be designated as terrorist, and Hamas as been so designated by the Australian Government, which notes not only its attacks on Israel, but also the brutal suppression of Palestinian Fatah members and supporters in its own territory. Whilst denying Israel the moral foundation for its decision to swap more than a thousand Palestinians for a single individual, they refuse to mention the terrorist organisation that lies on its border, constitutionally dedicated to its destruction and yet now the gloating beneficiary of a bargain made in hell. That is a moral judgment. Israel's decision to swap 1027 prisoners to free one of its citizens is likewise a moral decision, also deliberate and just as telling.
This opinion piece was originally published in the 31 October 2011 edition of On Line Opinion.