On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved by a vote of 22-3 a proposed prisoner swap with Hizbullah that would return to Israel the remains of the two soldiers kidnapped at the outset of the Second Lebanon War, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and information on the whereabouts of Ron Arad. Hizbullah will attain the release of Samir Kuntar (more on him below), along with several other captured Hizbullah fighters. Remains of IDF soldiers and Hizbullah fighters will also be swapped in the deal.
The Israeli government released the following statement outlining the principles of the agreement:
“The government approves the agreement for the release of the soldiers held hostage in Lebanon in accordance with the following:
1.The kidnapped soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, will be returned to Israel. A report regarding the disappearance of Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad will be handed to Israel, in accordance with government decision number 978, taken on November 9, 2003, and the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War that have not yet been handed over will be returned.
In return for the kidnapped soldiers, Israel will release prisoners and detainees currently held in detention facilities within its borders, and will also transfer remains and information as follows:
a. The prisoner Samir Kuntar and four illegal Lebanese fighters, currently held by Israel, will be released to Lebanon.
b. The remains of dozens of infiltrators and terrorists, including eight Hezbollah fighters, will be transferred to Lebanon.
c. Israel will hand over to the secretary general of Hezbollah information regarding four missing Iranian diplomats.
d. After the exchange is executed, Palestinian prisoners will be released. The number and identity of the prisoners will be determined solely by Israel.
2. The prime minister’s coordinator of prisoner exchange negotiations Ofer Dekel will continue the negotiation process in accordance with the following principles:
3. The government will hold further discussions in order to complete and carry out the agreement in accordance with the principles listed in this decision.
4. The government of Israel is reiterating its commitment to do everything in its power to obtain solid reliable information that would shed light on the fate of Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.
5. The government of Israel is also reiterating its commitment to continuing efforts to secure the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
6. The government of Israel will not abandon its efforts to locate and return all the hostages and the fallen soldiers whose burial sites are not known.”
This does not mean that the deal is final, or that it will happen at all. But Hizbullah stands to gain much from the swap, and Israel has given the green light, so it is very unlikely that either side will back out at this late stage.
But is this a good move by Israel? As important as bringing home every last soldier is in the ethos of the IDF, are the remains of soldiers worth the release of living terrorists?
Israel, and its chief negotiator, Ofer Dekel, are to be commended for bringing Hizbullah to an agreement that involved the release of far fewer prisoners than past deals, including the 2004 exchange for the bodies of three IDF soldiers and Elhanan Tennenbaum that involved the release of more than 420 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. This may have been made possible by Olmert’s willingness to acknowledge that Regev and Goldwasser were dead, and therefore were worth much less in the grim calculus of a prisoner exchange. Perhaps some solace and closure will be provided to the Regev and Goldwasser families now that the waiting and wondering will finally come to an end.
But what will this deal do for Hizbullah? It gives them another victory, which they will undoubtedly publicize with great fervor and exaggeration. With the release of Kuntar, Hizbullah has attained its stated goal in the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in June 2006. Moreover, the deal will be further proof in the eyes of Hizbullah that Israel understands the language of force, and only through violence will further concessions be possible.
Hizbullah is already proclaiming that the deal proves Hizbullah’s strength:
“What happened in the prisoners issue is a proof that the word of the resistance is the most faithful, strongest and supreme.”
Emanuele Ottolenghi, writing in Contentions, calls the exchange a “bad deal”, but is off-target when asking
When did the government know that the two soldiers were in all likelihood dead? Was it immediately after Hezbollah’s incursion into Israeli territory, on July 12, 2006? If so, the government launched a military campaign of 33 days, that cost the lives of over 130 Israelis, in order to rescue the dead bodies of two. Some explaining is in order, if that is the case.
The war was not fought only to retrieve the two soldiers. The main goal of the war ultimately was to crush Hizbullah, especially along the border, regardless of whether they would also secure the release of Regev and Goldwasser.
Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, called the deal ‘capitulation to blackmail by terrorists’.
The truth needs to be said: Israel did indeed capitulate to blackmail by a terror organization, after conducting lengthy negotiations with it. It is releasing five live prisoners, in return for (almost certainly) the bodies of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. But we should also admit that this is what Israel has always done, under similar circumstances. When hostages could not be freed by force, negotiations were held and concessions made, in many previous deals. Moreover, the price this time is lower than we paid in the past.
Samir Kuntar himself, and the heinous crime he committed, should not be overlooked when judging this issue. His murder of two Israeli civilians was especially depraved, standing out even among the ghastly standards of Palestinian violence. He pulled Danny Haran, and his 4 year old daughter, Einat, out of their Nahariyya home and led them to the beach by gunpoint. He shot Danny in front of his daughter, then dragged Einat to the nearest rock. After struggling with her to force her arms away from her head, he shattered her skull with his rifle butt, striking her repeatedly. Danny’s wife, Smadar, survived the home invasion by hiding in a crawl space with 2 year old Yael, whom she accidentally smothered to death in her attempts to keep her from screaming out and revealing their hiding place.
Smadar was interviewed in Time magazine in 2006, and wrote an article in the Washington Post about the ordeal in 2003.
Outside, we could hear the men storming about. Desperately, we sought to hide. Danny helped our neighbor climb into a crawl space above our bedroom; I went in behind her with Yael in my arms. Then Danny grabbed Einat and was dashing out the front door to take refuge in an underground shelter when the terrorists came crashing into our flat. They held Danny and Einat while they searched for me and Yael, knowing there were more people in the apartment. I will never forget the joy and the hatred in their voices as they swaggered about hunting for us, firing their guns and throwing grenades. I knew that if Yael cried out, the terrorists would toss a grenade into the crawl space and we would be killed. So I kept my hand over her mouth, hoping she could breathe. As I lay there, I remembered my mother telling me how she had hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust. “This is just like what happened to my mother,” I thought.
As police began to arrive, the terrorists took Danny and Einat down to the beach. There, according to eyewitnesses, one of them shot Danny in front of Einat so that his death would be the last sight she would ever see. Then he smashed my little girl’s skull in against a rock with his rifle butt. That terrorist was Samir Kuntar.
The 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, in which American Jew Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, was an attempt by Abu Abbas to free Kuntar.
Although the horrid nature of Kuntar’s crimes need not outweigh more practical considerations, and do not necessarily trump the importance of bringing all soldiers to a proper Jewish burial in Israel, we must remind the world of who this man is whom Hizbullah celebrates as a hero.