From an Exchange of Abductees and Prisoners to Peace

 An agreement on the exchange of the abductees is not yet within reach. Unfortunately, the abducted will continue to languish in captivity. The agreement is a real dilemma. In logic, a “dilemma” refers to a situation in which there are two equally important alternatives that cannot be achieved together – despite the difficulty, one must choose between them. Israel has declared to its people and the world that the goals of its war are the elimination of Hamas and the release of the hostages. Hamas, for its part, demands an end to the war in Gaza and the release of detainees imprisoned during its resistance to Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. If it were possible to finish off Hamas (“finish off” not being an unequivocal concept) and to release the abductees alive – there would be no dilemma.

Hadash and Communist Party of Israel members during a protest against the war in Gaza held in Haifa. The banner reads “In Gaza and Sderot (Israeli town near the Gaza Strip) children want to live.” January 20, 2024 (Photo: Zo Haderech)

The proposals for a phased release of some abductees and cessation of the fighting for the time this release takes are regarded as suspicious by all sides. Why would Hamas agree to release Israeli abductees if the war continues afterwards? This week there is new talk of release in one phase – but for what? Israel is not ready to stop the war now, and it is not willing to release all the prisoners for all the abductees. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir threaten to abandon the government – but what can they do outside of it? Ashkenazi is making threats that he will leave the war cabinet, but what will he do without Gantz? And is Lapid ready to support Bibi in the government together with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir or in place of them? In this dim situation, is it any wonder that there is no renewal of mass protest? Whoever is supposed to fight against the government is either already in it or aspires to enter.

The extreme right in Israel has already chosen: it is willing to sacrifice the abductees and soldiers for the sake of “victory” over Hamas. This is the element within Israeli politics that demanded death for the Palestinians and the cleansing the Gaza Strip of Arabs. These are the ones who danced last week in Nation’s Buildings (a hall in Jerusalem) and recruited nuclei of settlers to resettle Gaza. This is the element that tries to starve Gazans and prevent the entry of food, medicine, and fuel to the strip. This part of Israel is not a tiny minority, it includes some (12) of the ministers of Netanyahu’s government, the people of Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and even some of the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) leaders. This messianic fascist element also has influence among some of the families of the abductees and captive soldiers, and it tries to speak on their behalf. This trend has the support of some of the middle-ranking officers in the army, those who burn houses (Yaniv Kubovich, Ha’aretz, February 1st 2024), and allow their soldiers to take revenge and to demonstrate as units for Jewish settlement of the Gaza Strip. They even infiltrated the army’s Operations Department and conducted psychological warfare to exterminate Palestinians on the Israeli Telegram net. The commander of this unit, a colonel in the Department of Public Influence in the Operations Directorate, was dismissed (Yaniv Kubovich, Ha’aretz, February 4th, 2024). This element in Israeli politics has already decided how to resolve the dilemma of the abductees: it is willing to sacrifice them to the Moloch of ethnic cleansing, settlement, and annexation. The victory picture of this element is a kiss of death for the pragmatic part of government and Israeli society. Their statements have already brought Israel to the Hague, caused the US and Canada to boycott violent settlers, caused Britain to say that it would recognize a Palestinian state (Britain is the midwife of the proposal for “partition” into two states of the British Mandate in Palestine before 1948), and caused the European Union to discuss recognition of a Palestinian state. Bibi is stuck on the horns of this dilemma, one wrong move and everything falls apart for him, and he falls.

We, on the left, recognize that the dilemma of the abductees must be decided. Soldiers were sent to fight by their country and were captured. Civilians – the elderly, women, children – were kidnapped in violation of all the laws of war. Unlike the fascist right, we recognize the struggle against the occupation as a legitimate struggle for national liberation, and therefore we recognize Palestinian members of the resistance organizations as prisoners or abductees (when they have been imprisoned without trial – “administrative detention”).  It is clear to us that a nationalist organization struggling for independence will strive to release its imprisoned members. This was the case, for example, when the British ruled Palestine and arrested members of the Irgun and the Lehi (Stern Gang). The famous operation of breaking into Acre Prison (on May 4th, 1947) is an example of the release of “terrorists” by force at the hands of their comrades. In that operation, there were many fatalities among the attackers and those released. The British executed the re-captured participants by hanging. Lehi fighters avenged their hanging-by-hanging British soldiers. In the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland (1998), some 500 Sinn Féin terrorist detainees were released by the British.

Israel is obsessive about comparing the ratio of fatalities between Israelis and Palestinians (price theory). The killing ratio of Palestinians to Israelis is, so far, about 1,800:28,000! Regarding the release of abductees, some claim that the number or importance of those who would be released is disproportionate. This is a claim from the world of commerce. Game theory experts have already shown that in past abductee deals, Palestinian organizations demanded the return of all their detainees in exchange for the abductees in their hands. Each side sees its detainees as its sons and wants them back, just like an Israeli father and mother. When there were few abductees, Israel released a larger number of Palestinian detainees for one sole abductee (Gilad Shalit in 2011). The principle we adopt is, therefore, “everyone for everyone.” Yesterday’s Barghouti (an imprisoned Palestinian leader) could be, who knows, a future Mandela.

Releasing detainees, however, is not enough. The claim that the freed prisoners will return to their old ways entails a hidden assumption that after the exchanges there will be only what was, another cycle of violence. A ceasefire and release of abductees are therefore not enough; both sides must move from a military to a political solution, recognize each other, and start negotiations for a peaceful solution between the two peoples. The release of detainees and abductees will really be futile if nothing else emerges from this carnage.

Avishai Ehrlich

This article was published in the Communist weekly Zo Haderech, February 7, 2024.