Gilad Shalit has been returned to Israel after more than five years in Hamas captivity - years in which his family was given no news of his condition and years in which his captors observed no internationally recognized humanitarian standards. Regardless of how one feels about the Hamas government of Gaza, its behavior in this case has been particularly reprehensible.
Of course, there are those who will point to humanitarian abuses by Israel as explanation, if not justification for Hamas’s reign of terror. They will argue that wars of liberation are almost always fought by terrorists who come to seen as freedom fighters. But that is a debate which will not be resolved here.
In any event, those debates are less important than some simple arithmetic connected to Staff Sargent Shalit’s release deal - arithmetic which leads one to believe that rather than this being a moment of possible reconciliation, or at least diminished hostility between two long-time foes, it is a moment when peace is farther away than ever. The arithmetic? 1 = 1,027. One Israeli captive for 1,027 Palestinians.
In Gaza, they are already celebrating the great deal that they have made in forcing Israel to hand over 1,027 Palestinians for a single Israeli. In Gaza, that is seen as a fool’s bargain. In fact, there are those in Israel who make a similar argument, claiming that this trade makes the next kidnapping that much more likely and undermines any notion of justice, by releasing convicted terrorists who have spilled the blood of innocents, and who have vowed to do so again as soon as they are released.
Such arguments by Israelis, especially those who have lost relatives in Hamas attacks, are understandable. They are also wrong. People sworn to your destruction don’t need any further incentives to kill you. And the fighters being returned in exchange for Shalit are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of others who are already willing to engage in mass murder, so it hardly seems worth worrying about the impact of their return to the pool of available Hamas personnel.
The justice argument is the one which gnaws most at the hearts and minds of Israelis who oppose this deal. But it ought to be a source of pride to a nation when extracting justice from others takes a back seat to practicing mercy with regard to one’s own citizens. That is why the overwhelming majority of Israeli’s welcome this numerically lopsided deal and also why peace feels farther away than ever.
Forget issues of provocative settlement building by Israel. Forget recent statements by Palestinian leaders, including moderates within the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, which suggest that they remain ambivalent about a two-state solution, preferring rhetoric celebrating a one-state solution, the one state being Palestine. All of those are issues which can be resolved. But how can peace be made with an enemy which doesn’t even value the lives of its own soldiers, let alone yours?
Had this been a one-for-one swap, there would be much to celebrate, more even than the joy of a son coming home to his family, be it an Israeli family or a Palestinian one. Had this been a one-for-one swap, we could all celebrate a recalibration of the value of human life, one which sees individual soldiers not simply as means to an end, but as individual ends in and of themselves. Enemies need not view the lives of the other side’s soldiers that way, but until both sides share that commitment to the lives of their own sons, it is hard to imagine a lasting peace.
The conflict in Israel and Palestine is a generational conflict, and as such, it will take generations to resolve. When the next trade between the two sides is defined not by 1 = 1,027, but by 1 =1, we will be on the road toward that resolution. Until then, each side must simply appreciate that however they explain the bargain they have made in the current swap, math speaks louder than words.