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What Do Israeli Prisoner Exchanges Tell Us about the Bergdahl Swap?


Amidst the controversy over the U.S.’s recent swap of five Taliban commanders for a U.S. soldier, some of the deal’s defenders have pointed to Israel’s policy of releasing prisoners in exchange for hostages. Negotiations with terrorists for prisoner swaps are far from unheard of from countries with responsible national-security policies, they contend.

Michael Crowley, chief foreign-affairs correspondent for Time magazine, writes, “Even Israel, which is not known for its kid-glove treatment of terrorists, has a recent history of doing business with its most despised enemies.”

He’s quite right: In recent decades, Israel has released almost 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 16 Israelis and the bodies of more than ten others. Famously, in October 2011, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip for five years.

These swaps are very popular among Israelis: 79 percent of the country supported the Shalit exchange, according to a poll conducted at the time.

Israel was very aware of one of the risks posed by the Shalit exchange — the idea that it could encourage future kidnappings — but the popularity of the decision suggests that many Israelis prioritize promises made to rescue their soldiers over those concerns.

“This collective willingness to expose ourselves to the risk of a future terrorist attack, if necessary, to secure Schalit’s release speaks volumes about Israelis’ strong sense that we are all in this Zionist project together, in good times and in bad,” a Jerusalem Post editorial explained at the time. They are aware, it continued, that “many, even most, of those who will be released will return to violent terrorism — and that by paying a ratio of 1 to 1,027 we are encouraging future kidnappings.”

Unfortunately, these concerns appear to be well-founded. A spokesman for the same coalition that had captured Shalit, the Popular Resistance Committees, promised to “capture another soldier and cleanse all the Israeli jails of our prisoners.” At a Hamas-sponsored rally in Gaza city, a crowd of tens of thousands chanted, “The people want a new Gilad.” And according to Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, the West Bank has seen a dramatic rise in the number of kidnapping attempts of Israel Defense Forces since the Shalit deal. There were 24 attempts in 2012, and 33 in 2013.

So defenders of the Bergdahl deal are right that Israel has chosen to make plenty of similar trade-offs in the past. But Israel’s experience also serves as good evidence that these exchanges do encourage future kidnappings.

Indeed, a Taliban leader told Time this morning, the Bergdahl swap “has encouraged our people” and will cause them to redouble their efforts to capture Americans. (See this Time article for more.)

Tags: Bowe Bergdahl