SCHWARTZ: A beautiful absurdity

Yesterday, the Israeli government released the names of nearly half the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — predominantly unrepentant terrorists with blood on their hands — who will be released in the coming week. These prisoners are being released in exchange for a single Israeli sergeant, Gilad Shalit. Hundreds of men and women convicted for responsibility in some of the most brutal terror attacks of the last decades, some demonstrated to be harboring every intention of returning to violence, are being released in exchange for a lone sergeant with no military value. This is not a “deal;” this is, to be frank, an obscene act of extortion.

But even as I realize this intellectually, I cannot remember the last time I felt such mixed emotions. Common sense cries out against this trade, yet I sit quietly in my room utterly bewildered, Gilad’s face etched into my brain. We at Yale like to imagine ourselves considering thorny questions of morality and public policy, but what is a country to do when faced with such a dilemma in real life?

Gilad was 19 years old — younger than most of us here, and less than a year into performing his obligatory military service — when a handful of Hamas militants crept out of a tunnel that had been dug from Gaza into Israel; they killed his comrades at their guard-post and kidnapped Gilad. This was five years ago. Since that time, Hamas has denied the Red Cross access to Shalit, and the only sign of him was a 2009 videotape, given to his family in exchange for Israel’s release of 20 prisoners.

In Israel, Gilad’s plight has taken on national dimensions. Because of the country’s universal military service requirement, and because of the deep national, religious and historical ties that unite so much of Israel’s relatively small population, the hostage-taking of a soldier is no private tragedy. As every Israeli mother gazes at the pictures of Sergeant Shalit that quite literally cover the country, she sees the face of her own sons staring back at her.

All of this, however, only begins to offer a glimpse into the soul-searching currently wracking Israeli society. Consider just a few of those prisoners slated for release: There is Ahlam Tamimi, who helped plan the Sbarro restaurant bombing that killed 15 in downtown Jerusalem on a balmy summer evening. After being told that eight of those killed were children, Tamimi smiled.

Then there is Abed Alaziz Salaha. He led a Ramallah mob in the lynching of two Israelis who took a wrong turn while driving near Jerusalem. His image — two bloody hands raised triumphantly before cheering throngs — was immortalized in a photograph that has become a symbol for the Palestinian intifada.

And there is Wafa al-Bliss, arrested for trying to smuggle an explosive belt while being transported into Israel for treatment at an Israeli hospital. How many patients at her hospital would have died had she succeeded?

These are only three names; there are 1,024 more.

While not every prisoner scheduled for release has been involved with terror on an operational level, the majority have been convicted of murder, manslaughter and intentionally causing death. Families of the victims of the soon-to-be-released terrorists have 48 hours to petition the Israeli Supreme Court against the releases. The Supreme Court is expected to deny all requests. This is after all, a “political” issue. The cabinet has voted, and polls indicate 2/3 of the Israeli public supports the deal. But given the staggering cost, how is this possible?

It seems outrageous, beyond comprehension. Israel is freeing people who will undoubtedly return to violence and kill more innocents, and the deal itself will embolden Hamas, one of the most cynical, violent groups the world has ever seen. To any statesman, this is an act of self-immolation, an absurdity on the grandest scale. I should be horrified at Israel’s weakness, its abject capitulation.

And yet … I cannot but feel pride in Israel’s choice, its act of absurd, infinite faith. Even when the Jewish people are recast as a modern nation-state with national interests and military might, they still find the tortured, scared, 19-year old boy more important than abstract principle or strategic calculations about future terrorist attacks. It is insane, but beautiful.

Today, think of Gilad and hope for his safe return. Even more, let us recommit ourselves to the values and absurd humanity that such a sacrifice represents.

YISHAI SCHWARTZ is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

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