In an interview George Mitchell gave to PBS, before embarking on his mission to the Middle East this week, the special envoy referred to the release of Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. He noted that release of the prisoners would inspire other terror organizations around the world to engage in kidnappings.
I have great respect for George Mitchell, the special envoy for President Obama. What's more, the appointment by the U.S. administration of a person of his experience and expertise in conflict resolution is in my view abundant proof of the President's determination to help the parties in our region reach an agreement. But based on my familiarity with the culture and mentality of the people in our region, I differ with Mitchell's on the behavior of terror organizations.
As someone who lives in the Middle East, who has been observing Islamic terror organizations in this area for a long time, I am taking the privilege of sharing my impressions regarding their modes of operation and their guiding principles. Every terror organization, by definition, will attempt to abduct soldiers and civilians from the countries against which it operates. It will try to do so at any given time, and at every opportunity that arises. This is no different from the way a terror organization operates when it carries out a terror attack. As long as it can kill and sow terror and destruction it will not refrain from such actions. After the fact, in retrospect, the terror organization will always find a justification for the attack: the anniversary of the assassination of one or another leader, the anniversary of the "occupation" of some place or another. Occasionally more complex reasons will be given, such as the desire to rid Islamic lands of "infidels" - recall the case of Al-Qaeda and the United States.
It should be remembered that the essence of a terror organization is to kill for the "show", to kill for the sake of spectacle; or, in the case of an abduction, to seize any person anywhere, as long as the victim is considered an asset in a future bargaining for the release of the organization's "warriors". The desire to take a hostage and exchange him for prisoners does not derive from a desire to improve the situation of the prisoners held in the enemy's jails, but rather from a need to preserve the organization's political support base within the local population, from which it recruits its own members and where it breeds it next generation of Shahids (martyrs.)
It is the duty of democracies to put an end to the operations of terror organizations in one of two ways: through determined military campaigns, or through negotiations that produce a disincentive to employ terror. This can only be hoped for if the terror organization is prepared to recognize the country it is fighting against and engage in dialogue with it. It is this point that the U.S. envoy George Mitchell eloquently stated refering to the terror organization of Hamas: "How do you expect to sit down and talk with someone who wants to destroy you?"
And if attention to the region's cultures is meaningful, it is important to understand how Israeli society behaves and what Gilad Shalit means to it. In a country of almost seven million inhabitants, where nearly everyone knows everyone else, many patterns of behavior resemble those of communal life, of a tribe that holds dear the values that are at the foundation of its existence. The Israeli tribe was founded on Jewish values that sanctify and celebrate human life.
The following event precisely describes the behavior of Israeli society. In September 2008, the government of Israeli was debating the release of Samir Kuntar, the Lebanese terrorist who in an attack on the town of Nahariya in 1979 killed Danny Haran and his four-year old daughter. He was to be exchanged for the bodies of two IDF soldiers who were killed during Hezbollah's assault on Israel. Smadar Haran, the victim's widow, accurately expressed what many Israelis feel.
After visiting the graves of her beloved husband and daughters -- her 2-year-old suffocated that night when, in hiding, Haran sought to prevent her from crying out -- and asking their forgiveness for her words, she urged ministers to approve the prisoner exchange: "Like when a stone is hurled into the water, the waves spread from the center outward and touch every single citizen of this country.... I have weighed these matters for a long time and, though it may be difficult, I will not oppose today's decision. Though my soul may break -- and indeed, it is broken -- my heart is at peace."
Sometimes weakness is strength, but who ever said that the sanctification of human life was a weakness?