By Phyllis Singer
October marked a time of prisoner exchange in Israel. On Oct. 18, Gilad Schalit, who had been captured by Hamas terrorists in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and had spent 1,941 days in captivity, was freed and returned to his family home in Mitzpe Hila in Northern Israel.
The price was high: Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Cabinet agreed to a deal with Hamas that freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit. Many of those released had blood on their hands; they had been convicted of killing many Israelis (and some tourists) in terrorist attacks and had been sentenced to life in prison.
On Oct. 27, Ilan Grapel, an American-Israeli citizen who had been arrested in Egypt in June was freed – perhaps on the coattails of the Schalit deal. Grapel had first been accused of spying for Israel’s Mossad, but later the charges had been reduced to incitement during the Egyptian revolution. The Egyptians had never substantiated any of the charges. Both Israel had the United States had pressured Egypt to release the 27-year-old Emory law school student, who had served in the IDF during the Second Lebanon War. Twenty-five Egyptian prisoners in Israeli jails were released in exchange for Grapel. According to the government, those prisoners were criminals, not terrorists.
The Schalit exchange generated much emotion in Israel, while the Grapel deal hardly evoked any reaction.
Nevertheless, according to The Jerusalem Post, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin said during a speech on Oct. 26 that the exchange deals “aren’t good for the state of Israel, and the state would do well to stop them.” In contrast to Diskin’s negative assessment, Yoram Cohen, the current Shin Bet chief, has said that the exchange deal with Hamas for Schalit is manageable. He maintains that most of the released prisoners have been banned from returning to the West Bank, where they could reactivate terrorist networks. Those that have return to the West Bank and East Jerusalem are under close watch by Israeli security forces, he said.
According to public opinion polls about the Schalit exchange, an overwhelming majority of Israelis were in favor of the deal, even though many had fears that it would lead to an increase in terrorism. A poll by the Dahaf Institute found that 79 percent of Israelis favored the deal, while 14 percent opposed it. Another poll broadcast on Channel 10 found that 69 percent backed the deal and 26 percent opposed it.
Opponents and proponents were vociferous in their comments – as exhibited in letters to the editor and commentary pieces in the Israeli newspapers. Many of the opponents proposed that Israel should institute the death penalty for terrorists who have committed attacks that murdered innocent civilians. On the other hand, proponents saw Schalit as their own son – not only as the son of Noam and Aviva Schalit, who maintained a vigil in a protest tent near the residence of Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem. On the days leading up the Schalit’s freedom – after the deal had been announced – supporters and protesters – many of whom were members of bereaved families whose relatives had been killed in terrorist attacks carried out by the prisoners – gathered on the street outside the protest tent to voice their support and opposition.
Two of the most interesting and poignant articles appeared as a counterpoint in The Jerusalem Post. One was written by Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby was murdered in 2001 at age 13 in a brutal attack as he and his friend were hiking in a wadi near his home in Tekoa. “Yes, I want Gilad Schalit released,” Mandell wrote. “But not at any price. Not at the price we have experienced
“Most people don’t understand the continuing devastation of grief: fathers who die of heart attacks, mothers who get sick with cancer, children who leave school, families whose only child was murdered. We see depression, suicide, symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. … We see the pain that doesn’t diminish with time. We literally see people die of grief. … I wish that I could rejoice with the Schalit family. But I can’t. The price is too high.”
On the other hand, Esther Wachsman, whose son Nachshon was kidnapped by terrorists in 1994 and killed by them as a rescue attempt by the IDF failed, supported the deal. “When the news broke last week that a deal had been struck for Gilad Schalit’s release, my husband and I wanted to get to the tent and to embrace Noam and Aviva and to rejoice with them,” Wachsman wrote. “I had no mixed feelings then, only relief and joy that Gilad would be coming home. A mother was to get her precious son back from hell.
“God has been merciful, has listened to our prayers and said ‘yes,’ Wachsman wrote. “A young soldier would be released and would return to the bosom of his family and of his people.”
Two poignant articles, two poignant points of view. But one cannot help but wonder what Sherri Mandell and other bereaved relatives might have said if their loved ones had been captured and held as prisoners instead of being brutally murdered. There are no easy answers.