Robert Fisk: Democratic governments don't deal with terrorists - until they do

In three decades, the Israelis have freed 7,000 prisoners in return for 19 Israeli prisoners

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where democratic governments did no deals with "terrorists". No country promoted this nonsense more than Israel. And no Israeli leader repeated the mantra so often as one B Netanyahu Esq. After all, America never "gave way" to "terrorists". No deals would ever be done by Britain.

Indeed, if France were to release 1,000 prisoners for one French hostage – heaven forbid – Obama, La Clinton and Cameron would be loud in their fury at French cowardice. But yesterday there came not a squeak from Washington or London about Israel's latest "deal" with its supposedly "terrorist" enemies: 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli soldier.

Of all nations on earth, Israel regularly "gives in" or does "deals" over "terrorist" demands more than any other. A quick trip down memory lane: in 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners for three captured Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. In 1998, for the remains of an Israeli soldier killed the previous year, Israel released 65 prisoners and the bodies of 40 dead Hezbollah men. I watched the grim procession of the latter to a south Lebanon village where the bodies reeked so badly that families were sick at the stench as they wept in mourning.

In 2004, I watched the arrogant figure of Samir Kantar – convicted of murdering a policeman and an Israeli civilian and his four-year-old daughter – stride across the Lebanese frontier from Israel a free man (along with two tractor loads of Hezbollah bodies, released in return for an Israeli agent lured into Beirut by Hezbollah). He was proclaimed a hero in Lebanon.

And so it goes on. In three decades, the Israelis have freed 7,000 prisoners in return for 19 Israeli prisoners and the remains of four dead Israeli soldiers. Quite an exchange rate. Ironically, Israel's latest "deal" – 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured in Gaza in 2006 – suggests that one Israeli life equals 1,300 Palestinian lives; this was almost the exact number of Palestinians killed in Gaza in the 2008-09 invasion when 13 Israelis were killed.

Oddly, Israel never explained – and most journalists never asked – why its soldiers simply could not discover where Shalit was held in Gaza. It must have been Israeli military incompetence on a massive scale – unless the missing soldier was taken briefly through the Gaza tunnels to Egypt. Perhaps, when he is released, he will tell us.

In the past 30 years, the hostage swaps have been engineered by the International Red Cross, the German intelligence service, the United Nations and now the Egyptians. Hamas, crowing as usual at its "success", might choose to hold its tongue. Arrangements currently suggest that in return for Shalit they will receive 500 Palestinians now and 527 Palestinians "later". More than 10 years ago, the UN engineered a similar swap. Half the Lebanese prisoners came home during the hostage swap; then the Israelis decided to keep the other half.

The UN's special negotiator told me personally that when he pointed this out to then-UN Secretary General, the latter said of the remaining prisoners: "Forget them." No doubt Hamas can be equally as ruthless. Since they are now trying to force journalists and others to obtain "visas" before visiting their Republic of Gaza, we may not know.

In any case, it's a dirty and outrageous business, doing deals with "terrorists". Do not utter the word hypocrisy. And don't expect Obama to say a word. After all, the poor man is seeking re-election.

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