Free the hostage, but at what price?

The fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s cruel imprisonment by Hamas, without the Red Cross being allowed to visit him, sparked growing public pressure in Israel on the government to agree to a painful prisoner swap. As I watched the protest, my mind wandered back almost four decades.

It was July 1973, and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) Academy was ready for its traditional end-of-semester party. I contributed my part to the party’s program by impersonating an Italian air attaché and conducting a tour of the base, where I had been serving for five years, without anyone recognizing me. Later, the pictures were shown at the party and generated a lot of laughter. I was surprised, therefore, when after the party I was summoned to the IAF commander, the fearsome Gen. Benny Peled, who showed great interest in the fact that for a full day I walked around the academy without my identity being exposed.

He told me why he was interested. A month before, Syria had agreed to return three pilots who had been kept as POWs for three years. Why? Because in June 1972, in a brilliant operation, the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, had abducted senior Syrian officers who were reconnoitering the Syrian-Lebanese border. After a year of hard negotiations, the POW swap was concluded. But Peled wasn’t fully satisfied. He entertained the idea of sending to Damascus people who would impersonate Syrian prison officers, get the wardens who maltreated our pilots and settle the account with them.

I dared wonder if this was necessary, once we’d gotten our boys back. He gave me a stern look. “If we’re here to stay,” he reprimanded me, “then everybody around us should know that they can’t mess with Israel and get away with it.”

I wish we still had that kind of approach. Furthermore, I wish we had adopted in the first place the stance of the United States: No deals with extortionists. Period. When, in 1993, the American pilot Michael Durant was captured by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s men in Mogadishu, Somalia (the “Black Hawk Down” incident), former U.S. 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.

Israel is not a superpower like America, and, furthermore, bringing our boys home has always been almost a sacred value. Israeli soldiers are willing to do everything for their country, even risking their lives, because they know that if they become prisoners of war, Israel will go out of its way to bring them back home. I flew with the Israeli Air Force for 37 years, and I always felt confident about that. Many times I was assigned to secondary missions that had only one purpose — to rescue fellow pilots who flew the primary mission, if and when they got into trouble. If they did fall into enemy hands, however, every government in Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap.

Netanyahu’s government is no exception, and through the good services of a German mediator, it came as close as possible to striking a deal with Hamas. However, the government refuses to yield to Hamas’ demand to release some of the worst terrorists, those responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Israelis. This is not a question of punishing them; the precedent of the ill-fated Jibril deal in 1985, when 1,150 prisoners were released, showed that many of the killers, once freed, resumed their killings.

This is not a question of principle, then, but of price. Maybe borrowing a page from Jewish history will help us here. In Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, not at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages has already cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.

The king arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth.” He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

This is a terrible dilemma, with no clear-cut answers. It was Geula Cohen, who was a fighter in the pre-state, anti-British underground Lehi (the Stern Gang), who summed it up. “If my son Tzachi [Member of Knesset Tzachi Hanegbi] were taken POW,” she said in one of the controversies over prisoner exchanges, “I would have fought like a lioness that the government should pay any price for his release.’’

Then, with the same breath, she added: “And at the same time, I would have expected the government to firmly reject my demands.”

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996, he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments.

Hamas rejects Red Cross demand to prove Shalit is alive

The International Red Cross on Thursday urged Hamas to provide proof abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is still alive, a request which the Islamist group quickly dismissed.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters in Gaza “The Red Cross should not get involved in Israeli security games aimed at reaching Shalit. It should take a stand that results in ending the suffering of Palestinian prisoners.”

Senior ICRC officials say their message was transmitted privately to the militant Islamist group in the Strip several weeks ago.


Same old United Nations, Sarkozy [hearts] Israel, Gilad Shalit turns 21 in captivity

Groups Assail U.N. Conference

A U.N. conference under way in Geneva is as bad as expected, watchdog groups say. In reports from Switzerland, two major U.N. watchdog groups said the conference – the first in a series of preparatory meetings for the follow-up to 2001’s notorious anti-Semitic Durban conference against racism – was following the path of its predecessor.

Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Eye on the U.N. Web site, called the meeting’s opening session “a slap in the face to every state and nongovernmental organization that really cares about equality and nondiscrimination.”

Egypt, speaking Monday on behalf of the African group, singled out Israel for its “continued occupation of Palestine and violations arising there from.” Pakistan, speaking for the Organization of the Islamic Conference, urged the conference to “move the spotlight on the continued plight of Palestinian people” and accused critics of waging a “smear campaign” against the gathering.

The conference is intended to combat racism and discrimination. Even before the conference began, critics warned that the process could lead to a repeat of the 2001 Durban conference, where an event ostensibly aimed at fighting discrimination became a platform for the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda and the singling out of Israel.

Sarkozy Reaffirms Pro-Israel Stance

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirmed his affection for Israel and hostility toward Hamas.

“I have the reputation of being a friend of Israel, and it’s true. I will never compromise on Israel’s security,” he said Monday in his first foreign policy speech since taking office in May.

While he said France would continue to cultivate rich ties with the moderate Arab world, Sarkozy drew a line at engaging Hamas or allowing Iran to procure nuclear weaponry. He described the Gaza Strip as “Hamastan” – a term seldom heard outside Israeli political circles – and said the Islamist Palestinian group must be curbed, lest it take over the West Bank as well.

Sarkozy, who was speaking to French diplomats, further urged Iran to abandon its nuclear program or for effective international sanctions to be imposed on Tehran. Otherwise, he hinted, there could be military intervention.

“This tactic is the only one that allows us to escape from a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran,” he said.

Captive Israeli Soldier Turns 21

Israelis marked the 21st birthday of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Supporters of Shalit held a rally in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, the conscript sergeant’s second birthday in Palestinian captivity. Newspapers and other media carried fresh coverage of his family’s ordeal.

Shalit was abducted in a June 25, 2006, cross-border raid by Hamas-led gunmen in the Gaza Strip. Two of his comrades were killed in the incident.

His father, Noam, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not doing enough to recover his son from Hamas, which wants a prisoner exchange. Olmert has signaled a willingness to bargain for Shalit’s return but has ruled out the lopsided swap demands by Hamas.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Monday that a deal was almost clinched to trade Shalit for 350 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, but that it fell through over the types of prisoners the Olmert government would release. Israel has said it will only release prisoners not involved in killings.

YouTube Under Fire in Germany Over Hate Videos

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has joined the call to punish YouTube for failing to remove hate material from its Web site. YouTube, the online video sharing portal, has been accused of spreading neo-Nazi material.

According to a report in the ARD television magazine, anti-Jewish propaganda from the Third Reich and music by the banned neo-Nazi group, Landser, can be viewed unhindered on YouTube. Such material is illegal in Germany. The report said some of the material had been online for several months.

The federal Ministry of the Interior has recommended filing charges. German officials reportedly have warned YouTube more than 100 times to remove the material but without a response. The vice president of the German Jewish Council, Salomon Korn, has asked that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Justice Ministry intervene to stop the online publication of offending video clips.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, is based in California and thus beyond Germany’s legal reach. But German officials could come down harder on Web companies with operations in Germany.

Israeli Holocaust Assets Listed Online

Israeli assets believed to have been left behind by Holocaust victims can now be claimed by their heirs over the Internet. The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets, which was set up in 2006 following disclosures that Israeli banks hold many accounts and properties that have gone unclaimed since World War II, has set up a Web site with the names of some 7,000 original owners believed to have perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Heirs of those who appear on the list can apply for restitution at The site is in Hebrew with English translation. The site does not deal with living persons or properties and accounts outside of Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegrapic Agency.