Instant View: The lesson of the Shalit deal is that it is Israel not Gaza that remains under siege

The release of Gilad Shalit is a moment for celebration. But it is also a moment to ponder on the extraordinary circumstances of Israeli survival in a desperately hostile region

Hamas poster of Gilad Shalit
Robin Shepherd, Owner / Publisher
On 18 October 2011 10:06

The release on Tuesday of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas five years ago, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners is a poignant moment in the recent history of the Middle East.

Emotions are both high, and mixed.

The one thing that everyone, even the BBC, is talking about is the “asymmetry” of the deal.

Imagine if the American or British governments agreed to release such vast numbers of terrorists, child-killers and assorted violent fanatics into the arms of an enemy sworn to destroy them for the return of a single, solitary captured soldier.

“Imagine” is the operative word, because it never has happened and it is all but impossible to imagine that it ever would.

Our reasons are clear: however committed we are to the principle of “no soldier left behind” we know that such a deal would merely incentivise further such kidnappings in the future, thus encouraging a never ending cycle of similar such events in which the terrorists would always have the upper hand.

For many in the West, Israel’s actions are therefore perplexing. Surely, they say, Israel must know better. The Jewish state, among all states in the world, knows the dangers of making deals with terrorists. What is going on?

Of course, there are some in Israel – particularly among the many Israeli families who have suffered losses at the hands of terrorists -- who would agree with such sentiments. Nonetheless, the polls show that between 70 and 80 percent of Israelis support the deal, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is nobody’s idea of a soft touch on terrorism. That debate will run and run.

What is, in a sense, more interesting is how the whole affair demonstrates the continued failure of many in the West truly to understand the predicament Israel faces in its dealings with the Palestinians and with the Arab and Muslim world more broadly.

The key issue that needs to be understood is that unlike America, Britain or any other Western country, Israel is and always has been a nation under siege. It is surrounded on all sides by people, movements, terror groups and countries that have never accepted the Jewish state’s legitimacy, many of which actively seek its demise.

That changes the calculus of risk dramatically, and it means Israel needs to respond to events in a radically different manner from the countries that are so quick to judge it.

Even in Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel, polls show extreme hostility to Israel and the Jews, with negative sentiment rising well above 90 percent according to some of the most significant surveys that have been conducted.

In recent months, Turkey – once considered an ally of Israel – has slid back into vicious anti-Israeli discourse as Islamism tightens its grip on the country.

As for the so called “moderate” Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, it continues to name public squares after people who have perpetrated some of the cruellest acts of terrorism imaginable.

There have been others since, but perhaps the most egregious example came in 2010 with the Palestinian Authority’s decision to honour Dalal Mughrabi, perpetrator of the 1978 bus massacres which left 38 Israelis including 13 children dead, by naming a central square in Ramallah after her.

In recent opinion polls, a significant majority of the Palestinian people themselves say they only support a two-state solution with Israel as a stepping stone to a one state solution at some point in the future when Israel is wiped out for good.

Put all this together and you begin to understand what Israel is up against.

It is in that very different context from what is faced by all other Western democracies that the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit was brokered.

To be sure, one can still argue that Israel has got it wrong. But what one cannot do is equate the circumstances in which Israel operates with those in which the rest of the democratic world operates.

Hamas would have attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers whatever the fate of Gilad Shalit. Large majorities of people across the Arab and Muslim world would have continued to dream of the destruction of Israel regardless of the nature of the deal to release him.

With that in mind, and for the sake of Gilad Shalit’s family in particular and the morale of the people of Israel generally, the Israeli government finally decided to proceed.

The day is joyous, but it is also tinged with anxiety about what might follow.

Such is life in a nation under siege.

Robin Shepherd is owner/publisher of the Commentator. His book, A State Beyond the Pale: Europe's Problem with Israel, is out in paperback. Follow the Commentator @CommentatorIntl 

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