Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit

After five years in captivity, Cpl. Gilad Shalit has returned home. Shalit's capture revealed some very dark things about a certain segment of pro-Palestinian activists (not to mention about Hamas, which held in violation of international law and basically incommunicando for the past five years), and his redemption from captivity is a joyous day. Even though there are reasons to be concerned about the utility of the deal that released him (and reasons to view it optimistically, as I'll explain below). But today is a day for happiness.

Still, it is important to try and tease out the implications of the prisoner exchange. The main argument against it, here made by Ilya Somin, is that by releasing Hamas prisoners Israel incentivizes future like kidnappings, thus causing a net loss. This, of course, is the standard reasoning behind a firm "don't negotiate with terrorists" position. And it's not exactly a stretch of a supposition -- various Palestinians, from Hamas officials to some of the released prisoners (this one a woman who tried to detonate a bomb after being admitted to Israel for medical treatment) -- have made just this claim (compare to Shalit, who upon release said of Palestinian prisoners: "I would be happy if they are released, on condition that they stop fighting against Israel.").

One could say this is Hamas exploiting an Israeli weakness. And in a sense, this is true -- but that is always the case when a terrorist organization is fighting a democracy. It is the same principle behind locating forces in residential areas and wearing civilian clothes -- it takes advantage of Israel's aversion to killing civilians and attempts to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Moral constraints often come at the expense of pure utilitarian concerns, and a clever (and amoral) enemy can exploit that. Still, one hopes that the adherence to norms of human dignity and solidarity can provide benefits of their own. The Israeli Supreme Court's mantra always stuck with me:
This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.

The fact of the matter is that -- some blustery rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding -- Israel does negotiate with terrorists. It knows that, and Hamas knows that. And that means that any time Hamas has an Israeli captive, they have leverage over Israel. Yesterday, they had such a captive. Today, they don't. And even if they try and get another one, there is a window of time that just opened where Israel is in a stronger negotiating position than it was before, and I'm hopeful that will lead to good things.

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