Incentivizing Terrorism

I was not planning to write a post on the Israeli government’s recent deal exchanging over 1000 Hamas prisoners for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. I was certain that someone more prominent would write a column explaining why this was a terrible decision. But even conservative commentators like Jennifer Rubin are praising it as a testament to Israel’s concern for the lives of its people. The US government has also praised the agreement.

I understand the emotional appeal of securing the release of a young soldier who has been in captivity since 2006. Nonetheless, the Israelis should have said “no.” Far from saving innocent life, the deal puts at risk many more innocents than it saves. It also incentivizes future acts of hostage-taking by Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Among the Hamas prisoners released in the deal are dozens who have committed brutal acts of terrorism against civilians in the past. If even a few of them commit further terrorist atrocities in the future, the resulting death toll is likely to far outweigh the benefit of saving Shalit. Moreover, such a lopsided deal (trading hundreds of hardened terrorists for an ordinary soldier) incentivizes future hostage-taking. Hamas officials have already said that the deal encourages them to kidnap more Israelis. If one hostage is worth 1000 prisoners, what can they get for two or three or ten? As one Hamas leader puts it, “[s]omeone who agrees to release 1,000 prisoners will agree to release 8,000 in the future.” If even a right-wing Israeli government that has otherwise taken a hard line against Palestinian terrorism is willing to go for such a deal, what about other liberal democracies? The precedent set by the Israelis is likely to endanger other nations as well as themselves.

Both the Israelis and other democratic states (including the US) have signed bad deals to get hostages back in the past, and such agreements have repeatedly backfired. For example, President Reagan gave Iran arms in exchange for American hostages held in Lebanon, only to see Iranian-backed terrorist groups seize more hostages as a result. But it’s hard to think of another hostage deal more ridiculously lopsided than this one, though a few previous Israeli exchanges come close.

Finally, it should be emphasized that Gilad Shalit is a soldier. The moral significance of that status seems to have been ignored. The job of soldiers is to protect innocent civilians from attack, sometimes at the risk of their own lives and freedom. Soldiers’ acceptance of these risks is why we rightly hold military service in such high respect. Although Shalit was apparently a draftee, he volunteered to serve in a combat unit, thereby accepting the attendant risks (the moral issue might be different had he been forced to take that risk against his will). To put numerous civilians at risk of future terrorist attacks in order to save a single soldier is a reprehensible reversal of moral priorities. It is similar to starting a fire that endangers civilians for the sake of rescuing a firefighter.

Shalit’s plight has been highly visible to the public for several years, and his friends and family have understandably been pressuring the Israeli government to secure his release at any price. By contrast, the identities of the future victims of the terrorists released in the deal, and the future hostages who will be taken as a result of it are as yet unknown. Because we don’t yet know who they are, the media can’t cover them and their relatives can’t lobby to protect them. It is a classic example of public opinion focusing on the seen while ignoring the unseen.

I don’t blame Shalit’s family and friends. Most other people in their position would feel the same way. But the Israeli government, like any government, has a broader duty to all of its citizens. It failed in that duty when it put numerous civilians at risk in order to secure the release of a single soldier.

UPDATE: Here is yet another Hamas leader stating that the deal proves that kidnapping works, and promising to take more hostages in the future:

Senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya says the Shalit-for-terrorists deal proves kidnapping works, and he promises more abductions. The Israeli Cabinet late Tuesday night approved freeing kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 terrorists and security prisoners.

Al-Hayya, a Gaza legislator and a senior academic and political figure, told the Chinese news agency Xinhua, “Our prisoners can only be released through this way. The release of prisoners will lead to a bigger victory and will break forever the siege that had been imposed on the Gaza Strip for five years.”

Last week, he urged Palestinian Authority terrorists to kidnap more Israeli soldiers to gain the release of all prisoners, including terrorists, in Israeli jails.

“The one and only solution is more resistance against the Israeli oppression, and more abduction of Israeli soldiers and settlers,” he told the Al Quds satellite television network.

It’s worth noting that, in Hamas’ terminology, all Israeli Jews are “settlers” and not just those who live on the West Bank.