Perhaps the most painful dilemma for any leader in Israel is deciding how high a price to pay to obtain the release of soldiers who have been left behind enemy lines.
Then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres set a precedent in 1985 when he released 1,150 terrorists for three soldiers in what became known as the Jibril deal. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu released 1,027 in 2011 for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, including Yahya Sanwar, a ruthless killer who went on to become the current head of Hamas in Gaza.
The arguments for such releases are obvious. It is important for the morale of soldiers to know that the government that sent them to war will do everything to bring them home. More compelling is the need to ease the unbearable suffering of the families of these prisoners, which is shared by the entire country. The Shalits, for example, went to sleep every night for more than five years not knowing the fate of their son, being held somewhere in Gaza by Hamas terrorists.
The arguments against the wholesale release of terrorists “with blood on their hands” are equally obvious. Releasing terrorists encourages others to follow suit, in the knowledge that they will be given, at most, a life sentence, and that they will likely be released after a few years in a prisoner swap.
What’s more, releasing terrorists poses a very real security risk to millions of Jews in Israel. These “heroes” go back to their communities, where they inspire and train the next generation of terrorists. Many resume their old ways (despite having signed a written “pledge” not to); indeed, more than 200 terrorists released in the Shalit deal were rearrested on further terror charges.
The effects are devastating: Seven Jews were killed directly or indirectly, including the three teens who were kidnapped in 2014: Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, Hy”d. Which raises the question: Is it right to free an Israeli soldier, who by definition puts his life on the line for the country, at the expense of civilians he’s supposed to help protect?
There are no simple answers to these questions, which are dealt with in Halachah. The Shulchan Aruch says there is no mitzvah more important than redeeming captives. Hagaon Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, ruled in favor of the Shalit deal, saying that priority must be given to the life of a soldier who risked his life on behalf of the country over the uncertain threat to the larger public.
(Harav David Yosef related that then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had asked his father for a ruling on a similar question prior to the 1976 raid on Entebbe.)
How far do we go to retrieve the body of a slain soldier? Does kvod hameis and respect for the family’s need to have a kever to visit in Eretz Yisrael override the possible risks to live civilians? These are profound questions that can only be answered by Gedolei Yisrael.
But the parents of Hadar Goldin, Hy”d, one of two soldiers whose bodies were kidnapped by Hamas three years ago in Operation Protective Edge, aren’t asking the government to release terrorists to gain the remains of their son. All they’re asking is that the government put enough pressure on Hamas that it will realize it’s not in its interest to continue holding onto the remains of their son and IDF soldier Oron Shaul, Hy”d.
“We, Israelis, need to define the price for Hamas for holding the Israelis’ bodies — soldiers’ bodies — and for kidnapping in the first place,” says Mrs. Leah Goldin, Hadar’s mother. “Defining a price for them means putting pressure on them. Because we now know that the whole world is struggling to rebuild Gaza and Israel is highly involved in the humanitarian aid to rebuild Gaza by bringing in materials and receiving people from Gaza to get medical treatment. We keep saying this must be linked to the fact that they hold our soldiers.”
But the government refuses, on the grounds that withholding aid, including electricity, would create pressure and result in missiles being fired on Israel or mass deaths in Gaza.
However, when PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas instructed that the electricity be turned off, Israel complied — with no terrible consequences — leading Mrs. Goldin to conclude that “our leaders, unfortunately, lack some basic courage to stand their ground.”
Col. (res.) Lior Lotan, who just resigned as the government’s coordinator of the prisoners-of-war and missing-in-action persons, has a different idea. He says that when Israel goes to war in Gaza, it should make it a priority to apprehend Hamas terrorists, to provide it with a “kidnap bank.”
“The war between Israel and Hamas should not end with Hamas holding two Israeli prisoners and Israel holding no Hamas terrorists,” as occurred after Operation Protective Edge, he said in a recording aired by Army Radio. He argues that for every Israeli soldier held by Hamas, Israel should have 200 of their people.
Another proposal is to adopt the recommendation of the Shamgar Committee which calls for setting a ceiling on the number of terrorists that can be released for a soldier, thereby taking the choice out of the politicians’ hands and protecting them from public pressure.
Yet another possible solution is giving terrorists the death sentence. Whether or not it proves to be a deterrent, it would at least reduce the motivation of Hamas to use Jewish hostages, dead or alive, as bargaining chips.
In the meantime, the one effective step we can all take is to daven for acheinu kol Beis Yisrael… who are in captivity… that Hashem should have mercy on them and take them from servitude to freedom, speedily in our days.