Israel’s Achilles’ Heel

Justus Reid Weiner; Zack Pyzer

Justus Reid Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and an adjunct lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Zack Pyzer co-authored and researched this article, he previously read Neuroscience at the University of Manchester.

Israel’s Achilles’ Heel

Israel has adapted to cope with the various security threats it has faced, putting the safety of its army and citizens first no matter the cost.

The Jerusalem Post



Photo by: Reuters/Handout

Throughout its history Israel has adapted to deal with the various security threats it has faced, putting the safety of its army and citizens first no matter the cost; economic or political. Israel’s solemn commitment to the well-being of its countrymen is vulnerable to exploitation by her enemies; emotional blackmail is Israel’s Achilles heel.

The abduction of Gilad Schalit in 2006 resulted in public and political turmoil spanning 5 years and 2 Governments. Many politicians and members of the public passionately supported giving in to the demands of Hamas to win the soldier’s freedom; others solemnly disagreed. In the end, the hesitancy of Israel’s position did neither its negotiating position nor Sergeant Schalit any good. Equivocation itself would have been averted if Israel had been able to implement a considered, sensible policy for such a situation. That no such plan existed left the country fighting a battle between its head and its heart; public pressure forced through the eventual outcome. All Hamas had to do in the meantime was watch, knowing that Israel’s inaction over its ethical dilemma would eventually deliver a high price for their prisoner.

Since Schalit’s release in 2011, public and political debate has stagnated and it remains that Israel has no publicly stated governmental policy as a means to deter, and if need be deal with future kidnappings. Israel certainly has pressing issues at home and abroad: Iran, the cost of living and the peace process foremost amongst them. This article, however, illustrates that the current situation in the region necessitates more than ever the need for a policy on kidnap and prisoner exchanges in general, before providing recommendations for a strategy in particular.

Although a third intifada is spoken about in a hypothetical sense, rather than the present tense, it is hardly quiet in the territories. Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, reported that terrorist attacks in east Jerusalem and the West Bank were 70 percent higher in February than January; during March there was another, albeit minor, increase of attacks in the West Bank. Even so, in context these figures do not represent an intifada – they lack the sheer volume of the first or the bloody horror of the second. However there have been repeated calls, not least from Hamas, for this upturn in violence to mutate into a fully blown third, ‘Prisoner’s’, intifada. Rare is the war which has a nickname before it begins, however the ‘unjust suffering’ of Palestinian prisoners is a major factor behind increased levels of violence and tension in the area.

In truth, Israel upholds prisoner’s rights well beyond the minimum demanded by international law. Access to food, medical care, entertainment and family visits alongside the payment of wages by the Palestinian Authority are all exorbitant luxuries by comparison to standards in a Palestinian or Arab jail, especially for an Israeli.

Another source of grievance is the severity of the punishment for ‘minor’ crimes, such as stone throwing. That 3 year-old Adele Biton is fighting for her life as a result of a stone throwing in March shows how minor is a distortion of the reality. In addition, Evyatar Borowsky, Israel’s latest victim of terrorism, was killed by Salam As’ad Zaghal, a man who until recently was in prison for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Stone throwers are by and large not mischievous youths making a mistake, they attack with the express aim to injure and kill. As with this murderer, the progression from committing ‘minor’ to ‘serious’ crimes can be quick; it is Israel’s right and duty to deter violent crime no matter the manifestation.

Prisoners have recently found their way into international headlines due to ‘hunger strikes’. These popular protests, as with many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are misunderstood. Often the prisoners accept liquids, end their strike after a day, or just simply eat food from their private supplies which they are allowed to buy with their monthly financial stipend and store in their cells. There have also been two high profile cases of prisoners dying in jail this year, with blame immediately and incorrectly placed on Israel. Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, in prison for planning an attempted suicide bombing amongst other crimes, died of esophageal cancer in an Israeli hospital to wrongful claims of Israeli mistreatment. The other case was that of Arafat Jaradat, whose death became a symbol of the Palestinian prisoner’s ‘plight’ when the PA accused Shin Bet of torturing him to death. His funeral was hijacked by terrorist groups calling for retaliation against Israel.

Some estimates put the number of Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli jails since 1967 at roughly 800,000, and there are roughly 4,700 prisoners currently in jail. Shared experiences help to explain why releasing prisoners has become such a national issue. Former inmates empathize with those in prison today and relatives of former inmates sympathize with those who have a family member currently in custody. It is clear that any organization that supports or secures the release of prisoners is rewarded with wide approval in the eyes of the Palestinian public. Both the PA and Hamas want to cash in on this potential popularity. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was no doubt responding to domestic pressure when he recently repeated his promise to free all prisoners, irrespective of their crimes.

The PA and Hamas have different methods to achieve the same goal. The PA can invoke international pressure on Israel and offer to begin peace process negotiations as a means to release prisoners through gestures and sweeteners. Hamas, on the other hand, have kidnap, which has proven to be very successful in securing the release of large numbers of prisoners at the same time as bolstering their reputation as an effective resistance organization. It is no surprise that Hamas has been responsible for most of the 18 kidnap attempts which occurred from November 2012 until February 2013 as they search for the new Gilad Schalit. It is also no surprise that recently two Hamas terror cell have been discovered in the West Bank to be conspiring to kidnap IDF soldiers. Hamas are branching out, both to expand their front against Israel and to undermine the PA in an attempt to unite the Palestinian people under their flag. Indeed a senior IDF officer commented that: “Hamas received a powerful tailwind (from the Schalit deal). We’re seeing Hamas raise its head after years … They’re no longer afraid.”

It is therefore evident that there is a pressing need for Israel to design a considered course of action when it comes to kidnap and prisoner exchanges. In the opinion of the authors, the guiding principles behind any future policy should be to first look at the bigger picture, two key elements of which are summarized below:

  1. The release of terrorists with violent intent compromises the Israeli government’s duty to the safety of far larger numbers of its citizenry. Governmental policy should never place the fate of one individual above that of the wider population. The unforgiving truth is that Israel cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens against released terrorists. Since the year 2000 over 180 people have died as a result of terrorist attacks planned or perpetrated by those released in prisoner exchanges or in gestures to the PA. The Schalit deal saw Israel hand over 1027 prisoners responsible for 569 civilian deaths and according to research by Almagor, the terror victims association, many have since returned to terrorist activity or otherwise breached the terms of their release. This was the case after the infamous Jibril exchange; the released formed the “backbone of the Arab rioting that occurred in Judea, Gaza, and Samaria during the late 1980s.” An estimate by then Israeli attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein put the recidivist rate for Palestinian prisoners in general at 80 percent. The threat they pose to Israel should not be underestimated.

  2. Submitting to unbalanced exchanges demanded by Hamas and other terrorist groups depletes deterrence whilst strengthening extremists in the Palestinian camp. In the longer term, two tools for promoting peace throughout the region are the deterrence of violence in general and the political marginalization of extremists in particular. Effective deterrence is built upon the prevention of attacks and strict penalties when perpetrators are caught. Israel’s deterrence is damaged by releasing prisoners prematurely, especially so when the terrorists in question express no remorse and publicly state their intention to attack again. As for marginalizing extremists, another consideration to take into account is the power struggle between the PA and Hamas. Hamas enjoyed a substantial boost in popularity when the Schalit exchange occurred; a wave of prisoner exchanges resulting in the release of many or all of Israel’s most dangerous prisoners would have a profound effect. In a worst case scenario it would embolden Hamas to attempt to wrest control of the West Bank from an intransigent looking PA. It is important to remember that it was not the election victory in 2006 that cemented Hamas’s grip on Gaza, but the subsequent crushing of all moderate opposition in the territory on the crest of their wave of popularity. A popular coup in the West Bank would spell disaster for the whole region, Israel’s current strategy concerning prisoner exchanges, or lack thereof, plays directly into their hands.

Israel has never expressed a concrete policy when it comes to exchanging prisoners with terrorist groups, simply a number of red lines that are redrawn every time the circumstances change. Inconsistency has led to a wide range in exchange ratios and the types of prisoners that end up being freed. Certain exchanges – the Jibril, Tannenbaum and Schalit affairs in particular – resulted in the release of hundreds or thousands of terrorists, many of whom would go on to inflict more bloodshed. Other exchanges have been successfully agreed upon on a one for one basis, or thereabouts.

Refusing point blank to negotiate with terrorists would be wholly unacceptable in the eyes of the majority of the Israeli public as it would most likely result in the death of hostages. Capitulating to extreme demands is also not a viable option going forward, as has been outlined. In fact Israel has few realistic alternatives, or additions, to a policy of formulating and implementing a tough negotiating position, however a unilateral approach with regards to negotiations is not enough of a deterrent effect. Risk-averse strategies need both diversification and contingencies; currently Israel has demonstrated none of its characteristic ingenuity in its strategy to combat the threat of kidnap.

One possible method to diversify its approach to deterrence would be to begin enacting the death penalty for aggrieved acts of terrorism, which is legal under International Law in cases where the terrorist in question has killed one or more people. Executing these terrorists would contribute to reducing what is referred to as the ‘jailbait’ effect, where the hero-like status of some prisoners encourages attempts to win their freedom. For example in 2006 Hezbollah abducted IDF soldiers in an attempt to negotiate the release of the abhorrent Samir Kuntar; his four murder victims included a child whose head he smashed on a rock. Hezbollah succeeded in freeing this high profile monster in the aftermath of the ensuing Second Lebanon War in exchange for the bodies of two of the kidnapped IDF soldiers. Kuntar remains unrepentant, encourages others to follow his lead, and received honors from the Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian political hierarchies. A major boost to Hezbollah’s standing in the Arab world; the whole affair has had major repercussions for Israel.

An unconventional angle on the idea of sentencing terrorists to death is one in which Israel could avoid actually killing any prisoners. In this scenario there would be an understanding that if any Israelis are abducted then it would result in the execution of terrorists that had until then been serving out a jail sentence instead. In this way Israel could combat the jailbait effect at the same time as deterring potential terrorist attacks. It must be noted that the authors are in no way encouraging the use of the death penalty per se, and are merely illustrating the scope for lateral thought in terms of a future deterrence and response to kidnap and blackmail.

In conclusion, a multi-dimensional approach to the broad issues surrounding prisoners, kidnap, release gestures and exchanges should be given room for public and political debate. Unfortunately the Israeli Government is helping to stifle the discussion by blocking the release of the Shamgar Committee’s findings on prisoner exchanges. The Committee is headed by the respected former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, and according to information received by Almagor the Report recommends that future exchanges be conducted on a one for one ratio. This is a position that the authors strongly agree with.

These conclusions should be put squarely in the public domain and become part of the general national discourse within Israel, the solution to Israel’s problem in this area is not found in avoidance. Instead it requires a strong, effective policy of deterrence and a tough negotiating stance to act as armor plating over her Achilles heel.