The story of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier freed after being held by Hamas for more than five years, is a profoundly moving one. His nighttime abduction in a cross-border raid, his years in captivity, his family’s tireless campaign on his behalf, and his euphoric homecoming all pull at our heart strings.
During his long imprisonment, Gilad’s innocent, boyish face—he is just Gilad to all of us now—became an iconic image in Israel and around the world. It adorned thousands of posters and signs around Israel and appeared on countless websites. His dark eyes seemed to look at us in a silent plea for help. Who could not be moved by his terrible ordeal and that of his family? We could not begin to imagine their suffering; we could only hope that it would end happily. Now that it has, we can all take comfort in Gilad’s freedom, and be thankful that he is alive and hopeful that he and his family can recover from the trauma they have lived through these past five years. The relief which so many of us feel at the happy ending of this saga, however, must be tempered by an acknowledgement that the deal Israel made with Hamas to secure Gilad’s release is, at best, morally problematic, if not actually unethical.
Ethics is, of course, not likely to have been uppermost in the minds of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members when they overwhelmingly voted to approve the deal with Hamas, which had finally been struck after years of on-and-off indirect negotiations through third parties. For them, the emotional plight of Gilad Shalit and his family, the Israeli public’s ardent desire for his safe return home, and the state of Israel’s longstanding commitment to do whatever it takes to recover its soldiers—dead or alive—from behind enemy lines were no doubt the motivating factors behind their decision to free more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences for murder and other acts of terrorism, in exchange for Gilad’s freedom.
In addition to the emotional and political motivations, there were also perhaps strategic considerations at work for the Israeli government: namely a desire to shift international attention from the recent Palestinian bid for statehood and weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had been enjoying a surge of popularity among Palestinians as a result of his defiance of U.S. and Israeli wishes by submitting an application to the United Nations’ Security Council for Palestinian membership in the UN. In striking a deal with Hamas and bringing Gilad home, Netanyahu has not only demonstrated strong leadership—a quality many of his domestic critics have long accused him of lacking—and boosted his domestic support, he has also dealt a political blow to Abbas and allowed Egypt’s military rulers to claim credit for their role in brokering the deal, thereby possibly improving the very fragile relationship between Israel and post-Mubarak Egypt.
But while Netanyahu may have scored a political coup, Israel’s decision to release convicted terrorists from prison raises some very thorny ethical issues. To be sure, the ethical implications of the deal between Israel and Hamas are by no means clear-cut. The underlying question of what price to pay to secure an individual’s freedom and possibly save his life does not have a simple answer. While morality requires us to try to save a human life and free a captive, there is surely a limit to what we can do to secure these noble goals. Can we put other lives at risk? Can we empower terrorist groups? Can we forsake justice? These are the difficult ethical questions we must consider. We cannot simply ignore the potentially negative consequences of this deal.
Undoubtedly, the hardest and most troubling aspect of the deal for Israel is the fact that it rewards Hamas so handsomely for abducting and imprisoning Gilad Shalit that it creates a strong incentive for future abductions (just as paying huge ransoms to kidnappers does). In other words, it encourages Hamas and other groups to try to seize more Israeli soldiers in the hope that they can secure the release of more Palestinian prisoners and enhance their domestic support in the process. Hence, the chances of another Israeli soldier and his or her family enduring the experience of Gilad Shalit and his family are now greater than they were before the deal was made. In fact, Gilad’s abduction was itself a result, at least in part, of previous deals that Israel has made with terrorist groups to secure the release of its soldiers and citizens, even when they were just corpses. The first of these deals was made back in 1985 when Israel freed 1,150 prisoners (Ahmad Yassin, the future leader of Hamas was one of them) in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. More recently, Israel struck a similarly lop-sided deal in 2004 with Hezbollah, releasing 436 Palestinian and other Arab prisoners in return for the release of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman, and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Were it not for these deals and others like them, perhaps Gilad Shalit would never have been abducted in the first place.
Not only do these deals endanger Israelis by encouraging future abductions, they also potentially endanger them by undermining Israeli deterrence. If would-be terrorists believe that even if they are caught and convicted, they will one day be released in exchange for kidnapped Israelis before serving their full sentence, they may be more willing to carry out a terrorist attack. In short, the deterrent effect of a possible long prison sentence is reduced.
Freeing convicted, and generally unrepentant, terrorists also puts Israeli lives at risk (and is deeply offensive and painful to the families of their victims). Palestinian prisoners that Israel has released in the past have gone on to commit acts of terror against Israelis. There is little reason not to expect that at least some among the 1,027 prisoners released by Israel will not try to inspire, plan, or carry out new acts of violence against Israeli civilians. However confident Israel’s military and intelligence services are in their ability to track and monitor the most dangerous terrorists being released, the risk they pose to Israelis is undeniably greater when they are free than it is when they are in prison. If one of the released Palestinian prisoners does take part in an act of terror in the future, tragically their victims will be part of the price that Israel has paid to secure Gilad Shalit’s freedom.
More broadly, by making this deal with Hamas, and therefore enabling it to claim success for its seizure and imprisonment of Gilad Shalit, Israel has strengthened Hamas and its message of violent resistance to Israel and weakened the more moderate Fatah party and its message of peaceful negotiation with Israel. This, too, could well jeopardize Israeli lives if it allows Hamas to receive more money, more popular support, and more recruits to its cause.
Thus, while saving the life of Gilad Shalit, the deal between Israel and Hamas could potentially put many other Israeli lives at risk. From a “consequentialist” ethical perspective, this must surely be considered wrong. On the other hand, from a non-consequentialist, “deontological” perspective, the deal is ethically sound on the grounds that we simply have a moral duty to free a captive and save a human life if we can do so. There is, therefore, no definitive moral answer here.
For Israelis, Gilad’s freedom comes at a real price. Although they rejoice at seeing a young man coming home and a son reunited with his family, they know from bitter experience that there may be other Israeli sons and families who will one day face the same ordeal. The next Gilad may among those celebrating Gilad Shalit’s return.
Israelis, however, are not the only ones for whom the Israel-Hamas deal is ethically challenging. There is also something deeply worrisome for Palestinians in this deal, or at least it should be worrisome. By demanding 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for just one Israeli Jew, Hamas is undermining the value of Palestinian life. In effect, this highly unequal ratio of 1:1027 says that a single Israeli Jew is worth over a thousand Palestinians. While politically it makes sense for Hamas to extract the maximum concession it can from Israel, ethically it is abhorrent to insist upon such an unequal exchange. It suggests that Palestinians do not value human life as much as Israelis do, and in doing so reinforces the already prevalent belief among Israeli Jews that Palestinians life is cheap, much cheaper than Jewish life. This, arguably more than anything else, is what is objectionable about the deal between Israel and Hamas. It strikes at our fundamental belief in human equality, a belief that is at the core of our moral thinking. To erode this belief in any way, even if unintentionally and for the sake of freeing prisoners, is the most unethical thing about this agreement
(This post originally appeared as a Carnegie Ethics Online column on the website of the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs).