Gilad Shalit, who was illegally held captive for five years by Hamas, returned to Israel today. I think the Shalit case has a good lesson for Americans.
Although a minority in Israel disagreed, the great majority of Israelis were willing to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including “Hamas leaders, as well as Palestinians jailed for deadly attacks against Israelis.” Why were the Israelis willing to pay this price? The IDF is a true national army in which most young Israelis serve. The BBC, which can’t be accused of being overly sympathetic to Israel, put it well:
However Israel’s critics may try to characterise it, the IDF is seen by many Israelis as a fundamental expression of their country, as well as its guardian.
National service, always badly-paid and often tedious or hazardous, is compulsory and is one of the great bonding experiences of Jewish society in Israel.
For the Jewish community – about three-quarters of Israel’s population – the army is seen simply as the nation in uniform. As a result, it still produces a kind of emotional reaction which has been largely forgotten in countries like the UK or the US, which have salaried professional armies.
It’s pretty obvious that we in America no longer have a national army, and maybe the best evidence of that is our general apathy about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who has been illegally held captive by the Taliban since 2009. How many Taliban prisoners are we willing to exchange for his freedom?
In addition to the nationalistic element in Israel’s willingness to do a deal, there is a religious element. The notion of redemption of captives has traditionally been a central Jewish value. In the case of Shalit, Jewish Israelis put their money where their mouth is, religiously speaking. Indeed, over the past three decades, Israel has released more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for 19 IDF soldiers and the bodies of 8 others. Unfortunately, Hamas gets this:
The Popular Resistance Committees, the Hamas-dominated militant coalition that captured Sgt Maj Shalit, vowed that it would seize another Israeli soldier to force Israel to release the 6,000 Palestinian prisoners that remain in its custody.”We are going to capture another soldier and cleanse all the Israeli jails of our prisoners,” said a masked spokesman using the nom de guerre Abu Mujahid.
Hence the dilemma for Israelis. But still, this is no doubt a happy day for Israelis and should be welcomed by all.