The world has just witnessed yet another historic, lopsided prisoner exchange between Israel and a terrorist organization. When Hamas abducted Gilad Shalit back in June of 2006, it followed in the footsteps of Hezbollah and numerous Palestinian groups that had successfully kidnapped and traded Israelis, dead or alive, in return for the fulfillment of their own interests. The Shalit deal resulted in the release of over 1000 Palestinian Arabs, including hundreds with "blood on their hands" that were implicated in some of Israel's worst terrorist attacks. Despite Israeli, American, and other Western claims to the contrary, states regularly engage in negotiations with terrorists. They do so despite openly acknowledging the fact that the release will only result in more kidnapping attempts and violence in the future. So why do they do it, and what, if anything, can we learn from this?
To answer these questions, it's worth understanding what motivates organizations to carry out kidnappings in the first place: money and power. The FARC in Colombia, gangs in Mexico, and pirates in Somalia, are all examples of groups that use kidnapping to fill their coffers and fund their operations. When the Iranians traded US citizens for military hardware in the Iran-Contra Affair, and Hezbollah traded Israelis for the release of thousands of prisoners, they did so for forms of power. Both parties forced their enemies to publicly recognize a reality they were loath to admit: they were players that demanded attention.
Israel has been reluctant to recognize Hamas as a power for quite some time, as the organization's modus operandi is the destruction of the Jewish state, and their efforts to achieve that goal are through terrorism and other forms of violence. Yet despite Israeli efforts, it continuously finds itself forced to negotiate with Hamas. In the past this has meant low level negotiations through third parties such as the United Nations. In the negotiations over Gilad Shalit, this meant back and forth indirect talks in Egypt with Hamas deputy foreign minister Razi Hamed, and Ahmed Jaabari, head of Hamas' military wing.
Ultimately, Israel felt an obligation to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit when it found terms it was willing to accept, even if it did not want to admit to them. In a small country where conscription in the military is required, too many came to recognize Shalit as someone who could easily be one of their own family members. If Israel had the opportunity to save his life, they had the obligation to bring him home. By all accounts, the Shin Bet and IDF regularly updated the prime minister on Gilad Shalit's status, and reported that they were unable to come up with a rescue mission that would possibly lead to a successful outcome. They also reported that the terrorists who would be released could either be successfuly monitored, or would be shipped far enough away to countries sympathetic to Hamas, like Qatar, Syria and Turkey, that their danger to Israel would be limited. Only time will tell what the effects of the prisoner release will be for the security of the Israeli people, but previous releases have led many to return to carry out further terrorist attacks.
The sad reality remains that those killed by terrorists are forgotten by media and the public-at-large must faster than those kidnapped and kept in the spotlight. While everyone in Israel knows the name Gilad Shalit, sadly few remember the names Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, who were killed by Hamas while attempting to kidnap Shalit. Even fewer can recall the names of the four soldiers who were seriously injured.
As long as kidnappings of Israelis continue, Israel will continue to negotiate with terrorists despite every intention and declaration to the contrary, while Hamas and other groups will continue to invoke the art of kidnapping to achieve status, power, and legitimacy. Few things can bring Hamas real results and front page headlines like a prisoner exchange. As long as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues, and as long as Hamas continues to be applauded for its efforts by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, terrorism and kidnappings will continue. As Israel struggles to remain united in the face of its enemies, so too will it continue to negotiate with terrorists.