What makes this prisoner swap different from all other prisoner swaps?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to exchange Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit for more than 1,000 Arab prisoners instantly became the biggest story of the year out of Israel. It has inspired a great many people and outraged many others. Judging by the enormous reaction, you would think Israel had never before swapped prisoners or negotiated with terrorists.
You would be wrong.
Over the last 30 years, Israel has released about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure freedom for 19 Israelis and to retrieve the bodies of eight others.
In 1985, for example, the Israeli government released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
Each one of these swaps stirred controversy. As many commentators have pointed out, one of their most strident opponents was an opposition leader named Benjamin Netanyahu.
What’s unprecedented about the Shalit case is not the deal itself, but the level of attention it has received. What has changed since 1985 — in fact, what has changed even since Shalit was captured five years ago — has been the media.
More than 30 Facebook pages have been devoted to gaining freedom for Gilad Shalit. The largest of them has 304,233 “Likes.” The Facebook pages are in French, Italian, Russian and Hebrew.
Hundreds of YouTube videos have been posted about Shalit, including one that shows him in captivity. Hundreds of thousands of people have viewed these.
Millions of Tweets have gone out pushing for Shalit’s release. The social media campaigns have helped launch billboard and other grass-roots campaigns in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
It took Gil Sitty just 30 days to get $10,000 contributions from 181 people so that he could mount a “Free Gilad” billboard campaign in Manhattan that 1.2 million people saw.
The billboards put Shalit’s image on the street, but the Internet made his face a familiar presence on millions of laptops. A “Free Gilad” ticker counting his days in captivity has been on jewishjournal.com’s homepage, and many other Jewish news sites, for months. As recently as 1985, Israeli prisoners of war merited an occasional newsprint story. Now their captivity is relayed 24/7, whenever we turn on our iPhones, iPads or desktops.
Jewish organizations used the power of social media to increase pressure for a deal. The organization StandWithUs, for example, launched an international “Free Gilad” petition drive that gathered more than 30,000 signatures.
Whether or not these organizations approve the final deal, they helped turn Shalit into the face of Israel.
Social media and “mainstream” media feed each other. Digital attention compels broadcast attention, and broadcast and print legitimize and amplify what takes place online. The campaign for Shalit’s release never would have gained the strength it did without social media.
The impact has been clear in the run-up to Shalit’s expected release (The Journal went to press on Monday this week, so I’m writing this with the understanding — and prayer — that the exchange will go off as planned).
According to Israel’s Government Press Office, 250 news organizations will join the 2,000 or so already registered in Israel to cover the prisoner exchange.
The exchange itself will be carried live by a number of major broadcast outlets, including Arab stations Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
Professor Dan Schueftan of the University of Haifa told columnist Doug Bloomfield that such media pressure amounts to a kind of “emotional terrorism” and results in bad national policy.
But the pressure is by now an irreversible fact of life. Israeli officials who must deal with terrorists, and the terrorists themselves, all must consider how the worldwide reach and immediate impact of new media can help or hurt their cause. How it can transform a captured IDF soldier into “everyone’s son.” How it can become an echo chamber for one family’s anguish. How it can create an international movement in an instant.
It’s too soon to tell what role the media pressure ultimately had in Shalit’s release. There are certainly other factors at play, some we know of for certain, some speculative: Hamas’ desire to cut a deal before its Syrian hosts collapsed and Netanyahu’s desire to undermine the Palestinian Authority prior to a United Nations vote on statehood strike me as the most likely.
How the capture and release of a captive plays out across the new media landscape has to enter into these other political calculations. As much as we like to see ourselves making cool, rational decisions based on long-term interests and bedrock principles, we live in a new world of instant connection, immediate access and relentless contact.
We are all its beneficiary. And its hostage.