In an 11-10 cliffhanger vote that crossed party lines, the Israeli cabinet has ratified another lopsided Arab-Israeli prisoner exchange.
This time Israel is supposed to trade 420 convicted terrorists, including 20 Lebanese and 400 Palestinians, to the Hizbullah terror organization for one kidnapped Israeli civilian and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. The civilian, Elchanan Tannenbaum, was kidnapped by Hizbullah in October 2000 apparently while on a business trip in an Arab country and, according to reports, has been severely tortured. The soldiers, St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan, and Omar Sawayid, were also kidnapped by Hizbullah that same month while on patrol on the Israeli side of Israel's border with Lebanon, and are presumed to have been killed. The 20 Lebanese Israel is supposed to hand over include Sheik Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, Shi’ite militia leaders whom Israel claimed it was holding as bargaining chips for Ron Arad, the captured Israeli airman who is still believed to be held in Iran and will not be part of the exchange
After months of agonizing debate, including appeals and demonstrations by relatives (and their supporters) of the four dead or imprisoned Israelis and of Arad, Israel has decided to pay the heavy price despite dire warnings by opponents of the deal that it means rewarding, and further encouraging, anti-Israeli terror.
But now there’s a wrench in the works—Samir Kuntar. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah terror master, says that unless this 421st terrorist is also released, there’s no deal. Israel says, no way.
Who is Samir Kuntar? On April 22, 1979, he led a group of four terrorists who infiltrated Israeli waters from Lebanon and beached their rubber dinghy in the coastal town of Nahariya. Breaking into the apartment of the Haran family, they took 28-year-old Danny Haran hostage along with his four-year-old daughter Einat. Smadar Haran, hiding in the attic with her two-year-old daughter Yael, tried desperately to keep the girl quiet and ended up suffocating her. During a resultant shootout with Israeli policemen and soldiers, the terrorists killed the father and the four-year-old girl in cold blood, a policeman and two of the terrorists were killed, and Kuntar and the other terrorist were captured. The latter, Ahmed Abarrass, has long been a free man: along with 1100 other terrorists, he was freed by Israel in the 1986 Ahmed Jibril prisoner deal in return for three Israeli soldiers.
What makes Kuntar different from all the other prisoners Israel is supposed to release this time? The difference is that he’s the only one who’s defined as having “blood on his hands”—of having murdered Israeli civilians. This time, Israel says, that’s where it draws the line. The other detainees include Obeid and Dirani, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia leaders, one of whom, Dirani, is charged with having held and tortured Ron Arad in the first period of his captivity and then selling him to Iran; other Lebanese who took part in killing Israeli soldiers in that country; and 400 Palestinians who played various accessory roles in terrorism but did not directly kill anyone themselves. But as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom stated: “Prime Minister Sharon said that Kuntar’s release is out of the question. The murder of a family in Israel is unforgivable. . . . We have stated in the clearest possible terms throughout the negotiations that Kuntar is not on the list.” Says Nasrallah: “Any swap that excludes any of the Lebanese detainees will not be acceptable. . . . I say to the enemy [Israeli] government . . . that the first name on the list must be Samir Kantar.”
Should Israel have gotten into this mess in the first place? It’s easy, after all, to make the case that such deals only encourage further murder, kidnapping, and terrorism against Israelis. Indeed, the terrorists freed in the Jibril deal played a key role in fomenting the intifada that broke out in 1987 and cost Israel many lives and other losses. It’s also easy to make the case that Israel must do all it can to free a civilian like Elchanan Tannenbaum, the abducted businessman who has been severely tortured by his Hizbullah captors, and to bring back the bodies of dead soldiers who were sent to serve their country and whose parents are desperate to bury their sons.
Supporters of the deal claim that this time, the “blood on their hands” principle will be honored and the detainees were all slated to be released in a few years anyway. Turning to the experts doesn’t necessarily help in resolving the dilemma: at the Sunday-night cabinet meeting, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (General Security Services) chief Avi Dichter came out squarely against the deal, warning that it will give Nasrallah a big boost and lead to further kidnappings; but Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon and head of intelligence Aharon Ze’evi came out in favor, arguing precisely the opposite—that keeping all the terrorists in Israeli prisons is what will encourage further hostage-taking ventures whereas freeing them will deprive Nasrallah of his main cards.
One thing, at least, can be said about Israel: it sees itself as in a mess, that is, a moral mess. Over these past months, Israel’s leaders and public have had to grapple with an array of moral imponderables: How many dangerous terrorists may one free to win the release of a single civilian who is subject to torture and death? How much does the actual life and suffering of the individual, Tannenbaum, count against the potential lives and suffering of others? How much moral weight do the corpses of soldiers bring into the equation? Can it be justified to risk finally abandoning Ron Arad—who, if he is alive, has been held for seventeen years, and fell prisoner while on a military mission—for the sake of Tannenbaum, who has been held for three years and, as a businessman lured to an Arab country under murky circumstances, may have been guilty of folly or, possibly, corruption? As the surviving member of the Haran family, Smadar Haran-Kaiser, said in recent interviews, Nasrallah “achieves sadistic pleasure in setting the families of terror victims against each other”; he has been waging “psychological warfare” against Israel by “cynically and cruelly manipulating the tragedies of Israelis.” Not surprisingly, she opposes the release of Kantar on any terms.
And what of the other side?
In whose name does Nasrallah act?
He is, after all, the head of a terror organization that claims to act in the name of God (Hizbullah means “Party of God”). He is hosted by the Lebanese government and directly supported by the Syrian and Iranian governments. As an Arab and a Muslim, he is directly connected to the twenty-one Arab countries that share his culture and language and to the much larger number of Muslim countries in the name of whose God he speaks.
Is there shame in the Arab and Muslim world over the spectacle of sadism, of inversion of all moral principles, that Nasrallah is conducting? Is there soul-searching—a sense of confronting moral dilemmas? These are rhetorical questions in the purest sense, since the answer could not be clearer.
When Israelis, by contrast, were accused of moral irresponsibility in the case of the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon, not only Israelis but Jews all over the world were affected, anxious to know what had really happened and whether Israel was really culpable. Even when Israeli criminals like Baruch Goldstein or the “Jewish underground” of the 1980s, acting entirely on their own, carried out acts of ideological murder against Arabs, Israelis as well as Diaspora Jews reacted with shame and horror.
Nothing similar, unfortunately, can be said about the Arab and Muslim worlds in this case. Hizbullah, under Nasrallah, has: kidnapped a civilian and subjected him to brutal tortures; kidnapped three soldiers after Israel had—as certified even by the UN—withdrawn from all Lebanese territory and murdered them in cold blood; and has now announced that Tannenbaum will die in captivity, the bodies of the three soldiers will be kept from their families, and 420 fellow Arabs and Muslims will remain (at least for a while) in Israeli jails if Samir Kantar—guilty of the murder of a 28-year-old man, a four-year-old girl, and a two-year girl—is not freed.
Whether the Kantar snag is somehow finessed and the deal goes through, or remains intractable and the deal collapses, Israel will continue to face the overarching dilemma of how to behave both prudently and morally in the face of enemies who have no moral principles and enjoy twisting moral concerns into sadistic perversions. Considering that a wide Israeli consensus now regards the Jibril deal as having been unwise and harmful, it is likely that if the current deal goes through, Israel will come to regret it for similar reasons, despite the differences in dimensions and nuances. If Israel were to gain anything from this ordeal, it would be a recognition by the outside world of the radical moral asymmetry of the conflict it is engaged in. Anyone who believes in the most basic human rights—not to be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, the right of parents to bury their sons, the right to life of a two-year-old girl—must ask not only why Israel’s direct foe in this case, Hizbullah, is allowed to flout these rights openly and cynically on the world stage, but also why the entire Arab and Muslim world that it represents does not raise a peep of protest.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Jerusalem whose work has appeared in many Israeli, Jewish, and political publications.