Uri Dromi: It seems an unfair exchange, but Israel is stronger for it

Many are worried that while Shalit's life was saved, the lives of others will be threatened
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The Independent Online

The return of Sgt Gilad Shalit after more than five years in Hamas captivity sparked a spontaneous outburst of joy in Israel. When television aired the picture of the released, frail soldier, at an Israeli air force base, saluting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had made the decision that led to his release, there was no dry eye in our small country. Shalit became the child of every family in Israel, and we just wanted him back home.

Once the jubilation subsides, however, we will be left with hard questions. More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are being freed in exchange for Shalit. They are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Israeli citizens, killed in vicious acts of terror. Their release is a painful blow to bereaved families.

Furthermore, in the last mass prisoner swap in 1985, many of those released returned to their deadly business of terror. Many in Israel are concerned now that while Shalit's life was saved, the lives of many others will be threatened. And finally, wouldn't the negotiation and the subsequent deal with Hamas only encourage further extortion in the future?

Hardliners everywhere tell us one should never negotiate with terrorists, even if hostages' lives are at danger. When the US pilot Michael Durant was captured by Mohamed Farrah Aidid's men in the Somali capital, Mogadishu in 1993 (the "Black Hawk Down" incident), former US ambassador Robert Oakley warned Aidid that the city would be destroyed, including "men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything... That would really be tragic for all of us, but that's what will happen". Durant was released right away.

This seems to be British policy as well, although one wonders how the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could have been reached without back-channel talks with the IRA, which only a few years earlier had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street.

However, when in 2004 it came to a British hostage, Ken Bigley, the British government refused to yield to the Iraqi terrorists' demands, and following a failed MI6 rescue operation, he was beheaded. This is where Israelis beg to differ. If Mr Bigley had been an Israeli citizen, he would have been alive today. Of course, if possible, we would have tried a rescue raid. Remember Entebbe. But with the absence of a military option, we would have negotiated a deal that would have saved his life. Why? Because in Judaism, "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world".

Is this a sign of weakness? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, once boasted that "we are going to win, because [the Israelis] love life and we love death". Indeed, we love life, and that is why we paid a heavy price to bring Gilad Shalit home to his family. After five years in captivity, being denied even the elementary humanistic act of a Red Cross visit, we just felt prolonging this might endanger his life. The boasting Sheikh, on the contrary, is still confined to his bunker in Beirut, and we will make sure he stays there.

If anything, the return of Gilad Shalit will only strengthen Israel. The renewed sense of solidarity, and the intensified conviction of IDF soldiers that their country will always be there for them, will more than offset the price paid. I'm proud to be an Israeli today.

Uri Dromi was a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996

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