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Israel's Resolve To Bring Home IDF Prisoners Dead Or Alive Weakens Bargaining Position But Serves As Source Of National Strength & Unity

Hamas Demanding Release Of 300 Killers For Release Of Corporal Gilad Shalit

Israel Reconsiders Its Prison Exchange Approach

Karnit Goldwasser, wife of dead soldier Ehud Goldwasser

Israel has gone through two of its most difficult days in recent times. The return of two IDF soldiers in coffins one day and their burial the next , was a time of personal mourning for most Israelis. After Sergeants Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were laid to rest, the full focus of attention turns to Corporal Gilad Shalit, abducted in a another cross border raid over two years ago and apparently held captive in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip. IsraCast reports that the debate over releasing living terrorists for dead IDF soldiers will continue, yet Israel's willingness 'to pay the price' is felt by many Israelis as a source of national strength and unity.

Sergeants Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had become 'family' for most and maybe all Israelis. After the two reserve soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah attackers in the cross border raid from Lebanon just over two years ago, their personal lives and their families, became part of our own daily lives and household names. In particular, Karnit Goldwasser, the thirty year old wife of Ehud and his mother Micki. They traveled the world striving for the soldier's release and captured the nation's heart with their dignity and devotion. And Eldad and Ehud, were not career soldiers. They were young men who had started building their private lives after already fulfilling their IDF service in a combat unit - they had answered the call for a month of reserve duty on the Lebanese border. They were the best examples of those young Israelis, who serve their country with no questions asked and it is no exaggeration to say that Israel's survival depends on such men.

Now the death of any soldier is a blow in such a small country and is met with a sigh of regret. It leads the headlines for a day or two. Reports about the incident itself, who the soldier was and where he came from from. Eulogies by his family and friends and then after a day or so the fallen soldier joins a seemingly endless line and passes out of the public's eye. But with Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev they became part of our personal lives almost day in and day out. First of all, Hezbollah in violation of all human or international norms, refused to reveal whether they were alive or dead in order to boost 'the price' for their return. Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, with his fiendish grin, would only say he now had his hands on two IDF soldiers.

Red Cross Logo

The two soldiers were known to have been seriously wounded in the Hezbollah ambush but there were to be no Red Cross visits, no letters and no signs of life. This was the nature of the enemy. (For its part, the Israeli approach has always been to comply completely with all international norms on the treatment of prisoners and the Red Cross is granted regular visits. If there were genuine Arab prisoner complaints, the Red Cross would have few compunctions about going public. Yet, when Israeli prisoners are kept in inhumane conditions without even confirmation if they are alive, the Red Cross follows a policy of total silence.)

Hezbollah deliberately tormented the prisoners' families in order to pressure the Israeli government. Immediately after the deadly Hezbollah ambush, an IDF medical inquiry had determined that, at best both the abducted soldiers had been seriously wounded, one critically. They would have required first class hospital care to have survived. Nor had Hezbollah given any indication they were alive at all in order to increase their demands. If the prognosis was so pessimistic, why did Israel agree to release live killers for dead Israelis? IDF Gen.( res.) Amos Gilad, who is privy to the prisoner negotiations, has said that no Israeli family ever gives up the faintest chance that their loved may still be alive and the only way to resolve the question is to bring back the body. On this level, the media and public opinion totally mobilize in solidarity with the families' demand to bring the boys home dead or alive and almost at any price. In such circumstances, the Israeli government does not have much room for maneuver in the long run. Moreover, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has declared: 'I am commander of all IDF soldiers, the living and the dead. We send them on their missions and it is our solemn duty to bring them back!' It recalled David Ben Gurion's statement about every Jewish mother knowing that the IDF will do everything possible to bring her son back home.

Samir Kuntar and his terrorist group

This still has a deep resonance in Israeli society today. At present, only 50% of eighteen year old Israelis are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Arab and ultra-orthodox youngsters are exempt and then there are the draft dodgers. So, out of every one-hundred soldiers, fifty are inducted while about 30% actually serve in combat units where the risk of ever being taken prisoner is far higher. Of course, the remaining 70 % of recruits fulfill necessary support roles, but the fact is that only a small proportion of soldiers face falling into enemy hands.That means that out of every 100 young Israelis only about 15 are at risk. Should this chosen few be given every protection from the potential danger even if this means that Israeli society obligated to set free cold-blooded killers, who will return to murder more Israeli children as is the case with Samir Kuntar? On his return to Lebanon, Kuntar declared he hoped to die as a 'shahid' martyr and experience proves that a majority of terrorists released by Israel return to fresh attacks on Israel. In the case of Goldwasser - Regev, the school in favor of doing everything possible held sway, despite the opposition of Shabak Security Chief Yuval Diskin and Mossad director Meir Dagan , the two security officials whose job it is to catch terrorists. This is a burning issue in the case of abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit. Egypt is about to start brokering a deal between Israel and Hamas in Cairo. In addressing this burning issue, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke of doing what is necessary and 'worthy' to secure Shalit's release.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya talks of a 'respectable' swap-in his view this means Israel must now be ready to free 300 of the worst Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the abducted IDF soldier. So far, Israel has agreed to release only 80 on the Hamas list, so the chances of an early exchange do not appear to be all that good.

Fallout: In light of Hezbollah's blanket refusal to reveal whether the two soldiers were alive or not, should Israel in the future refuse to talk about an exchange unless there is a sign of life? This is one idea being discussed in Israel today. But what happens if Hezbollah or Hamas were simply to say okay, we've got all the time in the world. The case of Israeli airman missing since 1986 wears heavily in Israel with recriminations about not acting promptly enough on an exchange to free him. On the other hand, when Israel freed over 1,000 terrorists in 1985 they came back to haunt the Jewish state in the first intifada a few years later. Today, there are those who argue that giving up Samir Kuntar will egg on the Palestinians in their demands making it tougher to free Shalit.
The issues are excruciating for those who have to decide.

For now the exchange with Hezbollah may have put an end to the Second Lebanon War, but this is only one chapter in the ongoing confrontation. Sheik Nasrallah is now the hero on the Arab streets throughout the Middle East, if not in the corridors of power. At the mass rally in Beirut honoring Kuntar and and the other terrorists, Nasrallah made a very abrupt appearance lending speculation that he suspects he is now high on Israel's hit list. In any case, the IDF has stepped up its readiness along the Lebanese frontier to face fresh Hezbollah provocations. Most of the experts see this as 'not a matter of if, but when'. In present day Lebanon, confrontation with Israel is the Iranian sponsored terror organization's raison d'etre, despite the fact that all Lebanese prisoners have now been returned and the U.N. verified that Israel has evacuated all Lebanese territory six years ago, (the Shaba farms are deemed part of Syria). And speaking of Iran, Hezbollah can be counted upon to start launching its rockets into Israel again, if the Israeli - Iranian confrontation turns from sabre-rattling to open hostilities.

As for the American presence at the next round of international contacts with the Iranians on their uranium enrichment program, the Iranians have justly earned their reputation as 'masters of diplomatic deception'. For years now, President Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs have successfully stonewalled European diplomats. One Israeli source said he could picture the Iranians in Tehran rubbing their hands in glee with the idea of meeting American diplomat William Burns and quipping: ' You ain't seen nothin' yet ! ' Then again maybe the Bush administration is trying diplomacy before implementing other more drastic options to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

David Essing

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