Israel’s lopsided prisoner exchange with Hezbollah last week brings to a close, in the saddest possible way, the final chapter of the Second Lebanon War. Two years and four days after that war began, the soldiers whose abduction lit the spark have finally come home, but not in victory. For two Israeli families, the return of their loved ones’ remains after two years of uncertainty brings an agonizing mix of closure and grief. For Israel, the handover of the two coffins fulfills a nation’s moral commitment to its citizen-soldiers that they will not be abandoned. It’s also a reminder, if any were needed, of the boundless cruelty of Hezbollah, which kept the soldiers’ families in limbo for so long.
For some Israelis, the exchange is an occasion for anger and indignation, most of it directed at their hapless prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Critics of the swap argue that Israel should never make deals with terrorists, because it rewards terrorism and encourages further attacks. Critics also complain that the deal Israel negotiated — four Hezbollah gunmen and a convicted child-killer in exchange for a pair of coffins — wasn’t good enough. The bottom line, using classic Borscht Belt logic, is that such deals should never be made and the payoff for them should be better.
Those protesters most inclined toward emotion are depicting the trade as the latest proof of Olmert’s cravenness, incompetence or both. More sophisticated critics acknowledge that Israel has made many similar deals over the decades; their argument is that the practice shows how Israel is weakened by misplaced tenderheartedness.
And indeed, Israel has made some famously unbalanced trades. In 1985, it swapped 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners for three captive Israeli soldiers. In 2004, it freed 400 Palestinians and 20 Lebanese prisoners, including two high-ranking Hezbollah leaders, in exchange for three soldiers’ bodies and one suspected Israeli drug dealer, a reserve officer who possessed sensitive intelligence.
By one calculation, Israel has traded some 7,000 prisoners over the past three decades for 19 Israelis and eight bodies. The latest deal is neither the largest exchange nor the most obviously uneven. The deals are always controversial, but they always go through, because they must. Israel will go to great lengths to bring its boys home. So, it appears, will Palestinians and Lebanese.
It’s important to remember, too, that Israel has freed prisoners not only in bitter exchanges with terrorist militias, but also as goodwill gestures to its negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization. More than 1,000 have been released over the past four years, both to move peace negotiations forward and to strengthen Abbas by letting him show his people the benefits of peacemaking. Olmert offered another such gesture last week in Paris, perhaps to offset the upcoming exchange with Hamas. These releases should not be controversial among Israelis, but they are. They do not bring humiliation or grief, but promise.
In fact, exchanging prisoners is an integral part of war because it necessarily precedes the peace. In battle, each side tries to remove the enemy’s fighters from the field, dead or alive. Soldiers captured alive are kept as prisoners of war, and when the war is over, they go home. The principle is an ancient one, enshrined in modern times in the Geneva Conventions on rules of war.
Israel’s ambivalence about these swaps is not unique to Israel. This is the unresolved dilemma of modern asymmetrical warfare — that is, of terrorism and guerrilla war. The Geneva Conventions govern wars between states and the treatment of their uniformed soldiers. But terrorists do not observe the laws of war, and when captured they are not prisoners of war, subject to Geneva rules. States have never agreed what law should apply to them.
Most Western nations, including Israel, arrest terrorists and try them as common criminals, as befits their horrific tactics. But they are not common criminals, either.
Israel in particular punishes terrorists more harshly than others committing the same crimes — whether murder or rock throwing — because it understands their deeds to be attacks on the state, acts of war. In prison they are frequently treated much like prisoners of war, permitted to organize themselves and to negotiate conditions.
In the end, terrorist prisoners nearly always go free when the war is over, often with their jailers’ grudging acknowledgement as leaders of liberation movements — the African National Congress in South Africa, the Mau Mau in Kenya and, for that matter, Menachem Begin’s Likud.
For Israel, that time has not yet come. Israel has not yet reached a peace agreement, and the Palestinians have not found their Mandela or Kenyatta. For now, Israelis have the bitter immediacy of war and mourning. But, as they learned again this week, they also have the honor of the brave and a hope for better times.