U.N. peacekeepers held in Syria reach Israel, military spokeswoman says

U.N. peacekeepers held by rebels for three days in southern Syria and freed at the weekend crossed into Israel from neighboring Jordan on Monday, a military spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman would not comment, however, on a report by an Israeli newspaper that Israeli troops had later escorted the 21 Filipino peacekeepers back to their base along the Syrian frontier with the Golan Heights, which are occupied by Israel.

The peacekeepers, part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that has monitored the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria since 1974, were released on Saturday by rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and taken to Jordan.

The men had been held in the village of Jamla, some 6 miles from the Jordanian border with Syria. The United Nations said they had been captured by 30 rebel fighters.

“I can confirm that they came into Israel today, from Jordan,” the Israeli spokeswoman said of the freed peacekeepers.

It was not immediately clear why the peacekeepers would end up in Israel, but, logistically, it would be safe for them to return to their main command post via Israel.

The spokeswoman refused to comment on the report on the Maariv newspaper's website that Israeli soldiers had escorted the Filipinos by bus from the Jordan border region to their base in the Golan.

The paper said that Israel, already worried about Syria's two-year civil war spilling across its border, was also concerned that the incident with the peacekeepers might lead member countries to pull troops out of UNDOF.

The peacekeepers have helped monitor an enduring though often tense agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, under which Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of forces within 20 km of a disengagement line in the Golan.

Israel captured the strategic Golan plateau from Syria in a 1967 war and later annexed the territory.

There have been a number incidents in which shells from Syria's civil war have landed in Israel since November, the latest as recently as Saturday. None have caused any casualties.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Alison Williams

Obligation to redeem captive trumps heavy price paid

The announcement last week of the release of Gilad Shalit after being held in captivity by Hamas for more than five years was met here in Israel with mixed feelings: On the one hand, tremendous joy. And on the other hand, grave doubts about the price paid and fears about the ramifications of this deal.

In a column I wrote previously in The Journal (“Free the Hostage, But at What Price?” July 1), I tried to find some guidance by borrowing a page from Jewish history. I wrote that in Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, this cannot be done at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages clearly 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 — 23,000 marks silver. Indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose, and leading rabbinical leaders like Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel managed to raise the funds. Yet the Maharam, from his cell in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace, 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.

The Maharam died in prison after seven years. He became a symbol of resilience and for generations was cited as the ultimate source on how to stand against extortion. However, few people care to read on in the history books. Fourteen years after his death, a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, a rich Jewish merchant, who was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam at the Jewish graveyard in Worms.

The question, then, is: If a ransom was eventually paid for the Maharam’s body, wouldn’t it have been wiser to pay that money for the living sage? For, in the end, isn’t the rescue of a single human life equivalent to saving an entire world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)?

A few years ago, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest poskim (authorities in the halachah) today, was asked to comment on the Maharam’s precedent, in light of a possible freeing of convicted Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Rabbi Yosef said he believed that the Maharam’s argument was wrong. The dictum of the Torah, he said (“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother”), is stronger than the edict of the sages (“It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth”), and therefore it overrules the latter.

Rabbi Yosef was not indifferent to the risks involved in a prisoners swap. He knew perfectly well that many of the terrorists released in previous swap deals had returned to their gruesome business of murder. His philosophy, however, is founded on the belief that the Arabs want to kill us anyway, and we are always in danger, under any circumstance. With regard to Gilad Shalit, Rabbi Yosef concluded that since there was a clear and imminent danger to Shalit’s life, the heavy price should begrudgingly be paid for his release.

All this discourse might sound strange to American ears, because the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. Period. Many in Israel — myself included — wish we could do the same. Without even reading Benjamin Netanyahu’s books on the subject, one knows that in the long run, absolute refusal to negotiate is the right way to deal with terrorism. Yet Israel is not a superpower, and also, Jewish tradition and values guide us in different ways.

Once the celebrations of the return of Shalit are over, we will be left with the hard questions of the price paid for his release. However, with all the difficulties ahead, we will most certainly emerge from this event with a renewed feeling of solidarity: Kol Yisrael arevim ze la’ze, every Jew is a guarantor for his fellow Jew. This belief has helped us in dire times in the past; it will also help us today.

Uri Dromi, a columnist based in Jerusalem, was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments (1992-96).

Gilad Shalit faces recovery issues

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to a joyous reception, but may need time to recover from his time kept in sun-deprived isolation and other injuries, his father said.

Noam Shalit said they were reunited in Israel and that his noticeably gaunt and pale 25-year-old son would require care for improperly healed shrapnel wounds. He said his captors had also treated him “roughly” at times.

“He will undergo a process of rehabilitation. We hope the process will be as quick as possible,” Noam Shalit told well-wishers who feted his son’s return to his Israeli hometown.

“We hope he can resume normal life,” he added.

Being deprived of sunlight while also being locked in isolation with nobody to communicate with save for his captors were other issues that may weigh on his son’s ability to pick up where he left off, Shalit said.

The soldier himself seemed utterly overwhelmed as he was seated for what Israeli pundits saw as a forced interview with Egyptian television, conducted before he even had a chance to telephone his family waiting in Israel.

“I don’t feel so good from this whole event … to see so many people after such a long time … after not having seen people for such a long time. I am on edge,” Shalit said in Hebrew to questions fired at him in English and Arabic.

Later Israeli media said the soldier felt unwell and faint while on a helicopter that ferried him from the Egyptian border to a military base to meet his family. He was nearly hospitalised, reports said.


Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and grabbed him from his tank, holding him incommunicado ever since.

They used him as a bargaining card to negotiate the freedom of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.

Shalit said his son had suffered minor shrapnel injuries that had not properly healed due to improper care, though it was unclear whether this stemmed from the 2006 Gaza border attack in which two other soldiers were killed.

Other traumas may also weigh on Shalit’s recovery.

His father said the soldier had so far given him scant details about his time in Gaza.

“At first there were difficult conditions and he was treated roughly but that afterwards mainly in recent years the treatment improved,” he said, but gave no further details.

The Islamist group Hamas has said it treated Shalit well during his captivity.

Former Israeli captives from previous conflicts said coping with liberty again could also pose tough challenges.

Mickey Zeifa, an army reserve colonel who was held as a prisoner of war by Egypt in the 1973 Middle East war, said Shalit would require careful management to enable him to settle back to the life he knew before his capture.

“It takes a very long time for a person to get back on course … you mustn’t crowd him,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“In my case … the celebrations around me, which at first were flattering and moving, brought me down. Sometimes the return is a trauma in and of itself, no less difficult than captivity,” he added.

Psychologist Rivka Tuval-Mashiach told Israel’s Channel 2 television that Shalit would need time to absorb the fact he has become such a huge public figure during his prolonged absence.

“He will need to be given time even to the physiological changes of light and darkness, not to be afraid to speak. We don’t know if he suffered violence or was tortured, but even in the first instances after he was back in Israel we saw that his frozen state thawed a little, with a first smile,” she said.

Still, Noam Shalit seemed optimistic, saying he felt he had “experienced the rebirth of his son” and that generally “Gilad feels well” and was very glad now to be home.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Sophie Hares

Egypt extends detention of American-Israeli Ilan Grapel

Egypt reportedly has extended by 45 more days its detention of Ilan Grapel, the dual U.S.-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt on spying charges.

The remand of Grapel, 27, who was arrested in June on suspicion of being a member of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was reported Wednesday by the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo reportedly requested that Grapel be free on bail for the duration of the investigation, which has lasted three months, but was denied after Egyptian prosecutors said Grapel posed a flight risk.

Originally from New York, Grapel moved to Israel after his graduation from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, joined the army, served as a paratrooper during the Second Lebanon War and was wounded in Southern Lebanon in August 2006.

Egyptian security officials said he entered the country shortly after the start of the Jan. 25 uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, during which Grapel allegedly posed as a foreign correspondent.

A law student at Emory University, Grapel allegedly said he was Muslim on the visa application he filed with the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and then entered Egypt using his American passport.

Grapel denies he is a spy. He says he came to Egypt to intern for a nongovernmental organization that assists refugees from Sudan and elsewhere. Friends of Grapel told The Jerusalem Post that Grapel was an Arabist and liked spending time in Egypt.

Susan Rice: Shalit captivity violates decency

Gilad Shalit’s continued detention is a violation of “basic decency,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said after meeting with his father.

“I was honored to meet with Noam Shalit today, 1,900 days after his son, Gilad, was taken captive,” Rice said Wednesday in a statement. “During this period, Hamas has held Gilad hostage and without access by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in violation of international humanitarian standards and basic decency. I expressed to Mr. Shalit the solidarity of the United States with him and his family, and I reiterated our strongest condemnation of his son’s detention.”

Noam Shalit is in New York this week meeting with ambassadors and human rights organizations attempting to garner support for the campaign to free his son, an Israeli soldier who has been held captive by Hamas for more than five years.

New York City’s council proclaimed Wednesday Gilad Shalit Day.

Israel and Saddam Share Long History

Spewing anti-Israel vitriol was one of Saddam Hussein’s
specialties. Of all the leaders in the Arab world, Saddam seemed to have the
most to say against Israel, and he seemed to say it the most often.

Now that he has been captured and faces possible trial,
experts are asking whether the Jewish State will again be his target of choice.

“It will be interesting to see if he chooses to attack Israel
this time, not with Scuds but verbally,” said Martin Kramer, a research fellow
at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center. “Historically, when he found himself up
against the wall, his usual method was to divert and deflect attention to Israel.”

After attacking Israel in the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam became
fond of saying that the Iraqi people represented 22 million missiles against Israel.

It was Saddam’s rhetoric against Israel that “was the main
glue for the Iraqis for developing national Iraqi feelings and remained so
until the very end,” said Ofra Bengio, a professor of Middle East history at Tel
Aviv University. “Hussein wanted to be able to mobilize the population around Israel
as the symbol of evil.”

In 1969, soon after Saddam was appointed Iraq’s vice
president, the government hanged 17 alleged spies, 11 of whom were Jewish, in
what is perceived as Saddam’s first message to Israel that he was a force with
which to be reckoned. The animosity continued in the 1970s, when Israel
provided covert military training and support for Iraqi Kurds in their struggle
against the regime in Baghdad.

The enmity intensified in 1981, with Israel’s air strike on Iraq’s
nuclear facility at Osirak, outside of Baghdad. Israeli officials defended the
strike in the face of worldwide condemnation, arguing that Saddam’s regime was
attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Years later, some of the same voices
that condemned Israel in 1981 said the strike had been the correct move.

Out of all the Iraqi-Israeli recriminations, Saddam was
proudest of Iraq’s firing of Scud missiles at the Jewish state. Casualties and
damage from the attacks were minimal, but the rain of missiles caused Israelis

For the first time in the country’s history, Israel did not
strike back when attacked. Instead, the Israelis, many of them survivors of
persecution elsewhere, hid in their sealed rooms with gas masks, while the
government heeded a request by the United States — which was trying to keep
intact its alliance with the Arab world against Saddam — not to counterattack.

Saddam’s power lay in part in his image and forceful
rhetoric, said Bengio, author of “Saddam’s World.” Saddam “managed to put
Israeli society into a panic for more than a decade. There was no basis for
such hysteria, but he managed to do it,” she said.

However, a serious Iraqi military threat never materialized,
she said, because Saddam was on such bad terms with the Syrians and Jordanians
that he was unable to establish a common cause.

Making Israel the focus of his diatribes was politically
profitable for Saddam. Presenting himself as a leader of the Arab world,
Hussein could use anti-Israeli sentiment to rally Arabs behind him.

He was seen by many in the Arab street as a hero for taking
bold stands against Israel and the United States. While other Arab nations
entered into peace talks with Israel and acceded to U.S. pressure, Saddam stood
firm with his belligerent stance.

The Palestinians cheered Saddam for supporting them, even
when the Scuds he fired at Israel endangered them as well. Most recently,
Saddam enraged Israel during the current intifada by sending substantial
monetary rewards to the families of suicide bombers who perpetrated attacks
against Israelis.

There was, however, a brief period in the 1980s, under
Yitzhak Rabin’s government, when high-level contacts took place between Israel
and Iraq. Led by Moshe Shaval, an Iraqi-born Israeli Cabinet minister, the
secret talks aimed at securing minimal relations between the two countries and
permitting return visits to Iraq by Israeli Jews from Iraq. The talks collapsed
shortly after they began. Â

Saddam’s Fall Seen Just as First Step

Israelis have a long score to settle with Saddam Hussein:
The former Iraqi dictator promised to destroy the Jewish State, fired 39 Scud
missiles at Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War and paid hundreds of
thousands of dollars to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

So, not surprisingly, Israelis were jubilant at news of
Saddam’s capture by U.S. forces in Iraq, a mood reflected by the Tel Aviv stock
exchange, which rose more than 3 percent on the day.

However, seasoned Israeli analysts are less euphoric. While
acknowledging a best-case scenario in which Saddam’s capture spurs the
Israeli-Palestinian peace track, puts pressure on Syria to seek a peace
agreement and enhances Israel’s strategic position in the region, they say that
much still has to happen in Iraq for that scenario to materialize.

The key question, they say, is whether Saddam’s capture
leads to a significant reduction in the number of guerrilla attacks on U.S. and
allied forces and leads to a more stable, pro-American Iraqi regime.

If that happens, the benefits for Israel could be enormous.
But if the attrition and chaos continue, the positive impact of Saddam’s
capture could dissipate quickly.

On the face of it, Saddam’s final, ignominious exit should
put more pressure on the Palestinians to seek an accommodation with Israel. The
radical Arab forces pressing the Palestinians to reject all peace offers have
been weakened, and Saddam’s capture further reduces the radical hinterland
Palestinian hardliners look to for support.

Conversely, it strengthens the regional standing of the United
States and adds weight to the U.S.-sponsored “road map” for
Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the Ma’ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit wrote that
there is an Israeli establishment assessment that “the removal of Saddam from
the catalogue of burning problems will release new energy in America’s
involvement here.” Caspit assumed that the road map will be strengthened, the
Palestinian Authority and Israeli prime ministers — Ahmed Qurei and Ariel
Sharon — will be forced to deal with each other and Sharon’s putative
unilateral steps will be deferred.

But will the Americans, still embroiled in Iraq, have the
resolve to exploit the moment to pressure both Palestinians and Israelis to
move forward? Israeli Cabinet ministers think not.

On the contrary, they expect U.S. pressure on Israel to
ease. Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, for example, believes the United
States now will be “far more confident in carrying out its campaign against
the ‘Axis of Evil,'” and give Israel more leeway in fighting terror.

Any reduction of U.S. pressure would be a problem, said
analyst Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Bitterlemons.org Web
site and a former senior Mossad operative. In Alpher’s view, the capture of
Saddam will only move the Israeli-Palestinian track forward if President Bush
follows it up by “knocking some heads together” on both sides of the
Israeli-Palestinian divide.

“But,” Alpher said, “this is not the direction we are moving
in. On the contrary, we are moving toward low-level crisis management
throughout the U.S. election period and throughout the crisis in Iraq — and the
U.S. is still facing a crisis in Iraq.”

Writing in Yediot Achronot, analyst Nahum Barnea doubted
whether Sharon will exploit the U.S. success to take the initiative on the
Palestinian track.

“What can Sharon learn from Bush’s achievement?” he asked.
“First, that he who dares, wins. He sets the agenda. Sharon has known this
truth for 50 years. But knowledge is one thing, action another: The chasm is
deep and the feet are heavy. He wants to, but it’s not easy for him.”

In congratulating Bush, Sharon suggested that Saddam’s
capture could herald the beginning of the end for dictatorships throughout the Middle
East, with major strategic benefits for Israel. In a veiled allusion to
neighboring Syria, Sharon said, “The dictatorships, and especially those
tainted by terror, learned a historic lesson today: The enlightened
international community showed that it can defend freedom and defeat terror
when it has to.”

The analysts, though, have their doubts. They are skeptical
about the chances of a democratic Iraq emerging from the chaos, let alone
setting off a domino effect of democratization across the region.

Yediot Achronot’s Alex Fishman wrote that “Saddam’s capture
is not an earthquake, not in Iraq and certainly not in the Middle East. Its
impact on our regional conflict is marginal, at most.”

Alpher pointed out that the Sunni Muslims who have ruled Iraq
for 13 centuries are a minority and, even without Saddam to egg them on, they
fear that U.S.-style democracy would lead to their removal from power — reason
enough to continue a rearguard action to resist democracy.

“It takes a stretch of the imagination that Saddam’s capture
is going to put the democratic domino effect back on track,” Alpher said. “That
I don’t see happening.”

Still, Alpher said he sees major short-term strategic gains
for the United States and Israel. Saddam’s capture dramatically enhances U.S.
credibility in the region, and that, he said, “is a boost for American
deterrence and, by association, for Israeli deterrence, too.”

If, despite the expert assessments, the United States is
able, within a year or so, to put into place a genuine, functioning democracy
in Iraq, that would send a very important message across the Middle East.

There’s even an outside chance that a pro-American Iraq
might even seek relations with Israel. And that, in turn, would be certain to
impact on Bashar Assad’s Syria.

In a recent New York Times interview, Assad spoke of peace
with Israel as a strategic choice his father had made, and one he intended to
pursue. A democratic Iraq, at peace with Israel, would give him added

But, the experts say, capturing Saddam is only one necessary
step in that direction. There is still a long way to go. Â

Saddam’s Turbulent Past With Israel

The capture of Saddam Hussein puts another nail in the
coffin of an Arab dictatorship known for its anti-Israel activity and rhetoric.

Here are some of the most significant events in Saddam’s
regime and his contentious relationship with Israel:

1957 — Saddam joins the Ba’ath Party.

1969 — Saddam is appointed vice president by President Ahmed
Hassan al-Bakr. Soon afterward, Iraq hangs 17 alleged spies, including 11 Jews,
in what is seen as Saddam’s first strong message to Israel.

1979 — Saddam becomes president of Iraq, carrying out a
bloody purge in which dozens of military officers and

party officials are executed.

1980-1988 — Israel is mainly on the back burner for Saddam
as Iraq is embroiled in a bloody war with Iran.

1981 — Israel bombs Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.
Israeli officials defend the strike in the face of worldwide condemnation,
arguing that Saddam’s regime is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Years
later, some of the same voices that condemned Israel in 1981 say the strike was
the correct move.

Late 1980s — Iraqi and Israeli officials engage in
high-level contacts in an attempt to end mutual hostilities.

1991 — Iraq fires Scud missiles at Israel during the Persian
Gulf War. Under American pressure, Israel does not respond militarily.
Casualties and damage from the attacks are minimal, but the rain of missiles
traumatizes many Israelis and strengthens Saddam’s image among Arabs.

1992 — Five Israeli soldiers are killed in a military
accident in Tze’elim. On Tuesday, Israel admitted publicly for the first time
that the exercise was training for an assassination attempt on Saddam

2000-2003 — Saddam provides millions of dollars in cash
payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers during the current intifada.

2003 — Despite fears that he would again strike Israel,
Saddam does not fire missiles at the Jewish State during the

U.S.-led war in Iraq. On Dec. 13, Saddam is captured by U.S.
forces near his hometown of Tikrit. Â