Why Now? The Release of Gilad Shalit
October 21, 2011
We rejoiced this week with the people of Israel and the entire Jewish world on the release of Gilad Shalit. Taken five and a half years ago by Hamas, he was held in austere and trying circumstances, spending weeks and months in solitary confinement. Our hearts go out to him, his family, and all the families of Israel. We especially feel for the families who lost loved ones to the terrorists who were released as part of the Gilad Shalit exchange. In order to have him returned, over one thousand Palestinian terrorists, many of them brutal murderers, have been or will be given their freedom. Gilad Shalit has been irreparably damaged by his imprisonment. We pray that with love, support, and lots of therapy he may go on to have somewhat of a normal life.
Despite the controversial nature of this exchange, the Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly voted to approve it. It also had the approval of the vast majority of the Israeli public. Prime Minister Netanyahu had to balance two compelling and crucial values-compassion versus justice. Does our compassion for Gilad Shalit and his family override the need to punish murderous terrorists? The Israeli cabinet decided to listen to its heart rather than its head. For the last five years, Gilad Shalit’s imprisonment has been at the forefront of Israeli politics. Shalit’s family, friends, and supporters encamped in front of the Prime Minister’s office for months, staged public demonstrations, and mobilized public support to pressure the government to negotiate Gilad’s release. The Israeli media counted each day Gilad was imprisoned. Public opinion was overwhelmingly supportive of Gilad’s release. Almost every Israeli family has had or will have children who serve in the military. They empathized with the Shalit’s family pain and insisted that the Israeli government do everything possible to live up to its oft stated pledge to bring every Israeli soldier home. The Israeli military also felt an obligation to free Shalit from Hamas imprisonment. Despite the Israeli government’s reluctance to negotiate with Hamas which publicly urges the destruction of Israel, it was compelled to act.
Jewish communities have always placed a premium on the redemption of captives. For over the last two thousand years, Jewish communities have redeemed Jewish captives in all kinds of circumstances. Every community had a fund for “Pidyon Sh’vuim,” for the redemption of captives. From Roman times through our rescue of Romanian Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry, we have done everything possible to redeem Jews from captivity. American Jewry, through our donations to the Associated, helped fund the release of those imprisoned Jews. The late Romanian dictator, Ceausescu, charged $10,000 per Jewish life. While we understand the dictum “To save one life is to save an entire world,” we also understand that many of these released terrorists will go on to murder again. “In the past three decades, according to one estimate, Israel has released about 7,000 Arab prisoners in exchange for about 16 Israelis and the bodies of 10 more. Another estimate has put the number of Arab prisoners exchanged since 1985 at about 10,000. According to a 2007 report by an Israeli terrorism victims group, 177 Israelis were murdered in the five years before the study by recidivist terrorists who had been freed. “[i]
The question for tonight is “Why now?” What were the combination of circumstances that created the opportunity for this exchange? Why did it happen this week? I will try to shed some light on this important question in the next few minutes. There are three reasons why this occurred now:
Both Israel and Hamas did not want to turn away overtures from the new Egyptian government to negotiate the exchange. Both parties need a positive relationship with Egypt and neither desires to alienate the Egyptian military government. Israel desperately needs a peaceful Southern front with Egypt and Hamas wants an open border between Egypt and Gaza. It was in their mutual interests to cooperate with the Egyptian government.
Hamas is embroiled in a struggle with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. It has been losing the battle, mostly because of the positive traction Abbas’ overture for Palestinian statehood in front of the United Nations has brought to the Palestinian Authority. Hamas needed to regain the initiative and undercut and up stage Abbas. The exchange did exactly that.
How did Netanyahu benefit? Gilad Shalit’s freedom has led to a national celebration. His release became a national obsession. Netanyahu’s political standing will only increase because of it and give him a much needed bump. Thousands of Israelis demonstrated this summer against the Netanyahu’s government management of the economy. The return of Gilad Shalit changes the focus of the Israeli public’s concern. For all these reasons, and more, this was an opportune time for Gilad Shalit’s release.
We, too, take the opportunity to thank God for sustaining Gilad during his terrible ordeal. We offer him and his family our best wishes and support during the months and years of healing to come. May he swiftly regain his health and be able to go on to live his life.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
[i] Walter Reich, NY Times, October 18, 2011