14 October 2011

History Repeats Itself

Preface: Three years ago there was a Hezbollah-Israel prisoner swap (of sorts) and, in my flurry of thoughts about the situation, I wrote an opinion article regarding it. It has since sat in my pile of thoughts and documents, growing increasingly out of date.

Now a new prisoner exchange is taking place. Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas militants for five years now, is finally being released…in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

It’s difficult to comment on this. On one hand, I want to rejoice along with Israelis that Shalit is finally being released. On the other, the inequality of the exchange speaks distressing volumes, and here is where the old article I wrote from 2008 will serve instead of any further commentary. And: warning. The commentary conveys strong feelings. It is not impartial. It is an opinion piece coming from someone with very strong opinions:

Dead for More Dead

I must write about an exchange.

Prisoners for Prisoners, bodies for bodies…these are natural exchanges between enemies.

Prisoners for bodies is something I cannot stomach.

This is a difficult subject to present. Not because of its controversial nature…to most, the morality of this subject, or lack thereof, is plain. And not because of its complexity. The facts are also plain. No, this is difficult to write because it is a subject about which it is nearly impossible to speak dispassionately. Hopefully the sources and translations will speak for themselves.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers were returned to Israel, as Hizbullah received five live prisoners in exchange. The bodies of 199 militants were also promised as part of the exchange. The most prominent of the prisoners returned to Hizbullah is Samir Quntar. Quntar is the most infamous of those being released because he shot an Israeli man, Dani Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by repeatedly striking her in the head. Haran’s wife apparently hid and their second child was killed as the mother tried to smother the child’s cries, so they could both remain hidden. I am trying to use the coldest language possible to describe this information, lest I be accused of “inciting emotions.”

Now, putting aside the “lop-sided exchange,” as it was stated in one paper, I want to focus on the reactions.

Al-Jazeera dutifully reported both sides of the story. (In this case that means both sides of the border):

In Lebanon there was celebration at the return of the five prisoners and a hero’s welcome for Quntar*.

In Israel there was mourning, as the families, and the nation, were finally able to bury their dead.

The Al-Jazeera article about Israel described the funeral and the national mourning, with half the article dedicated to reporting the medical examinations, which were conducted in order to prove who they were, and to determine how they died. The article states that “the examiners found difficulty in examining the bodies because they had not been preserved in freezers and they were in a progressed state of disintegration.”

My automatic reaction when I read any article is to go to the bottom and see what the reading public had to say. Al-Jazeera draws its viewers and its readership from all over the Arab world. Disappointingly, many of the reader’s comments were too hateful to warrant translation, but I will offer a few examples.

“With a quick look at the developments we see that the strategy which Hizbullah employed is sound and effective and simply requires patience and prior knowledge of what is needed. So it is a lesson to us Arabs in how to face against [the enemy]”.

Another says:

“God greet the heroes of Hizbullah who freed those men who are of the Arab people and the Islamic people.”

Some quotes are just religious rhetoric immediately followed by congratulations to Hizbullah and “the resistance” (generally referring to Hamas and such groups). 

Another reader directed his comments towards Israelis: “God willing all your days will be sad, and it brings me great joy when I see you all at a funeral.”*

Another simply says “Death to America and Israel” and describes the judgment that will be brought on them.

Out of nearly 30 commentaries that are currently posted for the article, I only saw one, which stood in sharp contrast to the rest.

“Look you Arabs how the leaders treat just one soldier. If it had been an Egyptian, or a Jordanian, or a Syrian or a Saudi soldier, would their country have launched a war for their sake? Or have conducted a funeral such as Israel did? When will the Arabs learn from their enemy the meaning of respect for a citizen…”

The President of the Republic of Lebanon, Mishal Sulayman was present to greet the released prisoners, as were other representatives of various official political factions in Lebanon. Perhaps this is one of the most troubling results of this situation and yet it will likely be viewed as peripheral information, if it is noticed at all.

Again, to make it very clear: The President of Lebanon was present to greet the return of the prisoners, one of whom killed a father in front of his daughter, and then brutally killed the girl. This criminal was treated honorably, warmly and as a hero. The attendance of President Mishal Sulayman is equivalent to Lebanese government support of this man’s actions.

The article about the celebration on the Lebanese side of the fence was followed by pages of congratulatory letters directed towards Nasrallah, (Leader of Hizbullah), and the “resistance”

Another stated “By God, Oh Arabs, what a victory…2 in exchange for more than 200…we congratulate you on this accomplishment, oh Arabs.”

One reader seemed suspicious of the absurdity of Israel’s concessions and speculated that there was some other strategy afoot.

Whether there is some grand plan or idea, I don’t know. But the whole thing boils down to this: One country gave up more than it perhaps ought to have in order to return the bodies of loved ones to their families and to show them that their country had not forgotten them. The other country received, in return, 199 bodies and five prisoners, at least one of whom was not imprisoned on any overlookable charge: killing a child. Not with a bomb, and she happened to be nearby...but in brutal close-hand fashion. This is a quote from Samir Quntar himself:

“I did not come to Lebanon except to return to Palestine.” He expresses that the greatest wish of all for himself, and Hizbullah and the “resistance” is to become a martyr and that he will go on fighting.

So will Israel put bullets in the hands of their enemies in order to do right by their own dead?

I think this was perhaps an honorable-minded concession, but likewise a horrible one. I’m torn. The newspapers and the commentary sections are burning up with passages about how this was a “fantastic victory” for Hizbullah. Those who would see Israel destroyed have now concluded that Israel will give up anything and everything in exchange for ‘nothing’. That is because, to those and sadly even to many non-militants, two men is nothing…nothing but cannon fodder and food for propaganda. To Israel, however, two men are indeed something. They are citizens, soldiers, brothers, husbands, sons…they are countrymen.

The disparity in the numbers of the exchange equals the disparity in mindset of the two sides of this exchange.

As Israelis mourn and finally have a chance to pay respects to their lost loved ones, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, Hizbullah, and any who look to them for their opinions, rejoice and swear on it as a victory on the battlefield.

*Quntar was later given an award by the Syrian President. I hope that most Lebanese and Syrians don’t actually concur with the honors accorded this man. I strongly hope that they do not. But those vocal on the Al-Jazeera Arabic commentary boards were in fierce support.

*I am aware that this is an exceedingly negative portrayal of the general Arab reaction. It bothers me too. Indeed, I am not trying to generalize. When I attended the commentary boards I expected a healthy debate and contradicting views. I must admit myself disheartened and surprised by the lack thereof.

Afterword: The points made here about a rather different situation still stand. I think the disparity in numbers is quite relevant. There are all manner of peripheral connotations which could be discussed (social pressure, symbolism, proper concessions, political machinations) but when we talk straight numbers we’re looking at a very unusual situation. I don’t know how to end this except to pose questions: Why are these exchanges so dramatically lop-sided? What does it say about how life is viewed and valued by both sides of the exchange? Why does this leave me feeling so disconcerted?

I speak Arabic and Hebrew and have worked with and enjoyed the camaraderie of Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Iraqis, and I’m not convinced as to whether or not exchanges like this represent progress. Part of me want to praise it--the willingness to give up a lot for what seems like very little (but surely it isn't little)--but I am still troubled by what is signified in the huge numerical gaps. It bespeaks other, more troublesome gaps.


  1. I read about Shalit being exchanged. I believe that the exchanges have been so lop-sided because the Arabs don't really care if they ever get their bodies or prisoners back. They already consider them "lost to the cause". I think that they are also excited about the idea that they are "shaming" Israel into these exchanges, I don't think that is the case.

  2. Well, like I said, I hope that such commentary does NOT represent the majority Arab view. I don't think I could ever say they wholesale don't care. I wouldn't say that at all. I'm sure their families care. I do feel pretty confidently that their GOVERNMENTS don't really care.

  3. I hadn't heard of Shalit's release!! I am shocked and so thankful for his family. I remember when he was captured...because I was still living in Israel when he was taken. I feel like both sides of the border will be celebrating and feeling as though they have finally won a great victory...but for different reasons. I think both sides of the border will also feel like they gave up some very important people/person and possibly they lost something with that sacrifice...but again for very different reasons.

  4. I am also kind of surprised that that kind of news didn't make it onto the front page of BBC's online news page...surprised and disappointed.