Haifa, Israel — People campaigning for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are facing, for the first time, grass-roots efforts against a prisoner exchange to bring him home.
Until now, there has been a split between the broader Israeli public, which has generally been united behind the idea of a prisoner exchange with Hamas for Shalit, and analysts and defense strategists, who have warned of the dangers of such an exchange.
While public support for an exchange is stronger than ever, some grass-roots activists have begun efforts to try to reduce the current. In the most open display of discomfort about a prisoner exchange, some 500 people gathered outside the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 8 arguing that releasing prisoners will put more lives at risk. A group called the Three Fathers, made up of men who lost children in a 2003 Hamas attack on a Haifa bus, led the event.
A movement kicked off by one of Israel’s best-known political activists, Moshe Feiglin, leader of a right-wing faction within the ruling Likud party, amplified the protest outside Netanyahu’s house. Feiglin sent a letter in October to the Ministry of Defense insisting that if he is captured during reserve duty, he does not want prisoners exchanged to free him. He is launching a campaign to get other soldiers to sign ready-made cards making the same demand of the ministry.
Feiglin’s spokesman Shmuel Sackett told the Forward that he expects “thousands” of people, both soldiers in national service and reservists, to sign up.
“We are trying to return to the days when the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] was proud and strong rather than impotent and weak,” he said.
Both protest campaigns were prompted by the release, in early October, of a video of Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian forces near Gaza in 2006. The Israeli public seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief after the video showed Shalit alive. A call immediately went up for the government to conclude a deal to bring home the Hamas-held soldier — at a cost of freeing some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The release by Israel of 20 prisoners in return for the Shalit video was the first tangible sign that the government is prepared to cut deals.
There has not been any polling on support for a prisoner exchange since the video was released. But experts believe that support has reached an all-time high, surpassing the previous level of seven in 10 Jewish Israelis who back the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Analysts of various political shades have never let up on voicing concerns about an exchange. In the government, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin are known to have deep reservations about exchanges.
Following the release of the video, Haaretz commentator Amir Oren pointed to the “serious security and political implications of the deal [Netanyahu] is cooking up,” and a Jerusalem Post editorial stated that positive as it is that Shalit is alive, “it is the government’s duty to pursue his freedom mindful of the many other lives at stake down the road.”
But members of the public who oppose releasing such prisoners have largely remained silent on their views, until now. Ron Kehrmann, a member of the Three Fathers group, said it was the release of prisoners for the Shalit video that prompted his demonstration. Kehrmann’s viewpoint is that however heart-wrenching the Shalit family’s story, releasing prisoners who could carry out further terrorist acts will cause more families to experience a tragedy like his own.
Supporters of the Three Fathers include parents of men killed in military operations to capture prisoners. These supporters feel that releasing such prisoners undermines the sacrifice that their sons made. Kehrmann asked rhetorically: “How can you send someone to risk their life to capture terrorists in a densely populated area and then release the prisoner? Was it in vain?”
Hebrew University scholar Dr. Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, an expert in political psychology, told the Forward that prisoner exchanges tend to scramble the Jewish state’s politics, with people’s views determined by the strength of their emotion on Shalit more than by their ideology. The appeal of the Feiglin campaign, he said, “doesn’t have to do exactly with ideology — some on the left may agree.”
But Sulitzeanu-Kenan said that while the campaigns may be successful in gathering support, he thinks they operate on a mistaken premise. The Ministry of Defense has not confirmed whether it would avoid negotiating the release of a captured soldier who had signed up with Feiglin’s campaign. But Sulitzeanu-Kenan is convinced that “politicians would go ahead and try to strike a deal.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org