Extreme Morality in Israel

By Danielle Bella Ellison:

After 5 years of captivity, 25-year-old Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit was released Tuesday, October 18 by Hamas in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian and Israel-Arab prisoners, hundreds of whom have life sentences for committing mass murders of Israeli civilians.

One soldier returned home in exchange for hundreds of mass murderers? It doesn’t seem rational. But it is completely in line with the extreme moral virtue of the State of Israel.

The main reason Israel struck the deal with the terrorist organization Hamas is the Israeli and Jewish principle that each life is sacred and must be saved even if there is a high price. There is a well-known verse in the Talmud, the Jewish legal text, which says that whoever saves one life saves the entire world. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained in a letter he sent Monday to family members of those hurt or killed by terrorists who are now being released, he understands and empathizes with their pain, but it is nevertheless the duty of the Israeli government to bring home every soldier. Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed similar sentiments that there is a responsibility to save even one life.

Gilad Shalit returned to his family after 5 years. (Israel Defense Forces/Creative Commons)

The fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a citizens’ army with virtually universal conscription also makes it particularly necessary for the government to demonstrate that it will bring a captured soldier home despite high costs. From the moment Shalit was captured, every Israeli family identified with his family’s situation. David Rubinshtein, an 18-year-old Israeli who is soon beginning his army service remarked, “It was a bad deal, but one we had to do. It’s our duty as a country. We have to show that we do care about him; he is one of the Jewish family.”

Gilad Shalit’s negotiated release also comes at a time when Israel is facing immense transition and unrest both externally and internally. The turmoil of the Arab Spring has brought into question Israel’s previously stable relationships with Egypt and Jordan, and has opened up Syria as a renewed potential threat as well. And all this is compounded by the continuing strained relationships with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Meanwhile, the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN has isolated Israel in the international community, and Israel’s previously strong alliance with Turkey is crumbling. Faced with increasing change and potential problems, Israel wanted to act quickly and decisively to bring Shalit home while it still could.

In addition to strife with its neighbors, Israel has experienced significant domestic turmoil in recent months as citizens protest housing costs, food prices, and other issues. Netanyahu needed to achieve the resolution of the Shalit controversy in order to try to boost national cohesion and moral. “It doesn’t matter what your view about the deal was, the second Gilad passed the border everyone in Israel felt proud of his country,” Rubinshtein said.

Nevertheless, the details of the exchange seem all but absurd. 1,027 Palestinian and Israeli-Arab prisoners – more than 280 serving life sentences, and more than 100 serving multiple life sentences – were released in exchange for one Israeli captive. These include convicted terrorists and murderers.

In addition, there is the monumental problem of moral hazard. Returning such a large number of prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier sends the message to Hamas that capturing Israelis is a profitable idea. Paying such a high ransom price for Shalit will encourage Hamas and other enemies of Israel to kidnap more Israelis in order to retrieve their own. Although saving Shalit made Israelis feel that their government will recover a captured citizen at any cost, the Shalit deal has given Palestinians the incentive to capture more Israelis. However, it is human nature to want to rescue an identifiable individual (Shalit has become an Israeli icon) even at the expense of many unnamed future victims.

Finally, how can the world allow such injustice to happen? While Israel did what it had to, why was there not international pressure placed on Hamas to release Shalit earlier and on more reasonable terms? Even now, after the uneven deal has been completed, the global community remains virtually silent. But Israelis are used to this. Rubinshtein, a resident of Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel that has been continually targeted by Hamas rocket attacks, commented: “I’m used to the fact that the world will never protest for Israel. I just hope that one day the world will understand that we can’t live with the terrorists.”

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, focusing on Israel and its regional politics. Contact her at danielle.ellison@yale.edu.