While Israel celebrates Gilad Shalit's long-awaited home coming, and tens of thousands of Hamas supporters call for a "new Gilad" to be taken hostage, those of us outside of the Middle East cannot help but wonder at the dangerous message that Israel has sent to its enemies. The unsavoury deal in which one single Israeli soldier has been swapped for 1,027 convicted criminals (many of them murderers) has undoubtedly demonstrated that hostage-taking does work and that Israel does negotiate with terrorists. This message of acquiescence, however, is not an isolated one. It is accompanied by a message of appeasement from the wider international community, a message that declares that the West has lost its mettle.
It is all very well to say that Israel should not negotiate with terrorists, but Israel's very existence depends on its ability to do exactly that. It is the United Nations and countless international players who must take responsibility for this situation, for insisting that Israel sit down at the negotiating table with terrorists as part of the Middle East peace process. We have no right to bleat about Israel setting an awful precedent when in fact we are the ones to blame for Israel being in a position in which this is the "best deal" that Israel could ever hope to obtain with regard to Gilad Shalit.
The United Nations and its peace negotiators have treated the Shalit agreement as merely another indication that Israel can be relied upon to make more and more concessions. As usual, Israel is the one expected to make all the sacrifices. While the deal was framed in terms of the "human rights" of Palestinian prisoners, what it's really about is a one-sided sacrifice. There is no mention of the human rights of those who died at the hands of the Palestinian prisoners in question. There is no discussion of the justice denied to their families when these prisoners walk free without serving multiple life sentences. There is no consideration of the danger Israeli citizens will be exposed to from the release of convicted terrorists. These are the sacrifices Israel is expected to make for the life of one hostage, and these are sacrifices we have stood by and witnessed with barely a murmur of concern.
Palestinians are now gloating that one Israeli hostage has secured them the release of more than one thousand Palestinians, but only Israel can hold its head high in the knowledge that they have not strayed from the path of righteousness. Israel has demonstrated the value it places on its citizens. It has shown unequivocally that one Israeli citizen is worth a thousand Palestinian prisoners or more, that there is no limit to the value of a human life. It has shrugged off the threat of these freed terrorists wreaking more havoc and destruction and loss of life in Israel with the realisation that volunteers to commit suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism will continue to line up regardless of how many prisoners are or are not released. Israel has defiantly proclaimed that one life is worth saving, no matter how painful the price, for "he who saves one life," states the Talmud, "it is as if he has saved an entire world".
If there is one worthy thing I took away from my brief time as a non-Catholic at a Catholic school, it was the memory of Blackstone's formulation written above the blackboard of my home room: 'better that ten guilty escape than that one innocent suffer'. It is one of the most fundamental ideas to our justice system, the reason we presume innocence and insist on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Israel's practical commitment to this notion puts us all to shame.
As Benjamin Netanyahu remarked after Gilad Shalit's release, the Israeli government is committed to doing its "utmost" to bring home those whom it has sent onto the battlefield. It sees this mutual responsibility of Israel's government and its citizens as a "cornerstone" of Israel's existence. "The State of Israel is different from its enemies: Here, we do not celebrate the release of murderers. Here, we do not applaud those who took life. On the contrary, we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life. This is the ancient tradition of the Jewish People."
This is likewise the Judeo-Christian tradition, a noble tradition we trample upon every time we appease Israel's enemies by calling them political prisoners instead of terrorists. It is a tradition we must champion if we truly believe in a just society, human dignity, and "fighting the good fight". It is the tradition of those who perished at Auschwitz… but it is also the tradition of those who eventually defeated the Nazis – the 'premature anti-fascists' of the International Brigades in Spain and the ordinary men and women who vowed with Winston Churchill to "fight on the beaches". So now we must decide whether to embrace our heritage or shamefacedly deny it.
As Israel continues to stare down the barrel of a Palestinian gun, it is up to us whether we continue to ask Israel to be "more accommodating" or demand that the Palestinians prove they are genuinely committed to peace. As is often observed, if the Palestinians put down their weapons today there would be no more violence and we could have peace in the Middle East. If the Jews put down their weapons today, however, Israel would be wiped off the face of the earth. We must choose whether to continue to placate those bent on the destruction of Israel or to accept that appeasement of anti-Semitic terrorists is not only wrong but simply doesn't work. We must decide whether this will be our finest hour.
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