There may be 20,000 persons marching along the roads from northern Israel toward Jerusalem, led by the family of Gilad Shalit. He is the soldier who was seized from the Israeli side of the Gaza border four years ago, and has since been the subject of on-again, off-again negotiations to secure his release.
An uncle of the soldier was on prime time television, claiming that a majority of the country stands with the family. If Israel is a democracy, he said, then the government must pay the price demanded by his captors. Interviewers were not gentle. They asked about Israelis opposed to releasing prisoners with substantial blood on their hands, likely to revert to acts against civilians. Shalit's uncle said time and again that the risks are known, and that the people are right in demanding his nephew's release.
Israel has been in tragedies like this several times. So far this government, like its predecessors, is standing fast against Hamas's price for releasing Shalit. It is willing to release up to 1,000 prisoners, but not the whole list that Hamas is demanding. Moreover, some of the young and dangerous figures it is willing to release must not be allowed in the West Bank. They can go only to Gaza or somewhere overseas where they would be less likely to act against Israelis.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made a special appearance before the cameras. With his hand over his heart he acknowledged the pain and justice of the Shalit family, but rejected the slogan of "paying any price." He recounted previous cases where released prisoners returned to their violence, and noted one deal that subsequently cost the lives of more than 20 Israelis. He also spoke against a heroic action to rescue Shalit. Actions of that kind are costly in terms of soldiers' lives, with the captive likely to be the first one killed in the process.
Netanyahu is known for heroic pronouncements, occasionally followed by waffling and then denying that he said what was heard. The march of thousands on a hot weekend produced his special appearance in prime time. Politicians are lining up on both sides of the issue, while media personalities are offering different scenarios about the prime minister's eventual response.
Among the things the prime minister said was that Hamas continues to increase its demands. That may be true, and hints at a problem for Hamas even more serious than the problem for Netanyahu. Israel is holding something like 12,000 Palestinian security prisoners. Hamas has put forward a list of about 1,000. That means that its best scenario would see the families of 11,000 prisoners disappointed and likely to be as angry at Hamas for not putting their relatives on the list than at Israel for continuing to hold them. We are talking about extended families, with some of them numbering in the thousands of individuals, armed, and more concerned about a family member than the sanctity of the Hamas regime. The recent example of a school burning in Gaza by individuals who objected to the mixing of boys and girls hints at what the relatives of 11,000 prisoners can do. Better for Hamas to blame Israel for not making a deal than reaching an agreement that produces a many faceted civil war. Were that to happen, Hamas could not count on its police and other security forces acting in concert. Individuals and units would split and move to one or another side seeking revenge for not putting Cousin Hamad on the list to be released.
Human life is sacred, but "at any cost" is more suitable to rhetoric than reality. The IDF teaches it soldiers to avoid capture "at any cost." Does that advocate suicide by the person about to be captured, or fighting until someone else's bullet ends it? And does it mean that other soldiers should use every weapon available, including artillery, against enemies who have an Israeli among them? I have asked those questions without getting firm answers. The issues are more complex than "yes" or "no."
Jonathan Pollard is another figure in limbo for Israel. He began a life sentence in 1987, and has figured in several efforts of who knows what level of seriousness by Israeli officials to persuade Americans that "enough is enough." Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once told advocates for Pollard, "A sovereign state has to know how to abandon those who serve the state, if the need arises." Shamir was a gruff little man who is given the credit for forcing Count Bernadotte to pay the supreme price for serving as the UN emissary in Palestine during 1948.
Life can be difficult, and may end badly.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem