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IDF Soldiers Missing-in-Action: How Far Should Israel Go to Redeem Captive Soldiers?

by David Golinkin

After years of unsuccessful negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on October 11, 2011, an agreement between Israel and Hamas to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier kidnapped on June 25, 2006. Israel refused to free terrorists considered the highest security risks, but the government did agree to release many who directly caused the deaths of Israelis.

Though the deal for Shalit's release touches the heart and soul of every Jew around the world, it also sparked a fierce debate over the lengths to which the government of Israel should go in redeeming a single Israeli soldier.

Deal for Gilad Shalit
Arguments in Favor of Shalit Deal
Arguments Against Shalit Deal
Past Exchanges
IDF Protocol
Pidyon Shvuyim in Judaism
What Would You Do?

The Deal for Gilad Shalit

The Israeli cabinet approved the agreement by a vote of 26-3 in the Cabinet on October 11, 2011. The heads of the Mossad (Tamir Pardo), Internal Security Services (Yoram Cohen), and the IDF (Benny Gantz) all voiced their support for the plan. The three dissenting votes were cast by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) and National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu).

The deal stipulated that Israel would release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. On October 15, 2011, the Israel Prison Services released the names of the 477 prisoners who would be released in the first stage of the deal to take place on October 18, 2011. Two months later, sometime near the end of 2011, Israel will release another 550 Palestinian prisoners of its choosing. Most of the Palestinians will be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank or Gaza, but some will be deported.

In the early afternoon on October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit officially crossed from Gaza, through the Egyptian border, into Israel. He immediately underwent both physical and psychological exams to test his health and strength and was then transported to meet his family and Israeli leaders at an IDF base near Tel Aviv. Palestinians throughout the disputed territories celebrated as the prisoners released by Israel returned to Gaza and the West Bank.

Arguments in Favor of the Shalit Exchange

  1. Israel has a moral obligation to do whatever it takes to redeem its citizens. This is also a Jewish obligation, known as pidyon shvuyim, that has been cited in order to save Jewish lives for centuries.
  2. Shalit has been in captivity for 5 years and his mental and physical conditions are worsening. Hamas has not allowed the Red Cross to check his condition and the last sign of life Israel received was in 2009. With the assurance that he is still alive, Israel must save him now because he is in immediate danger if they do not.
  3. Israel must do everything it can to redeem its captive soldiers like Shalit because if it does not, IDF soldiers may retreat in battle rather than risk capture. Drafting its young citizens into the military seals Israel into a social contract with those new soldiers - they will dedicate and sacrifice for the country but must know that the country will do the same for them.
  4. Though more than 1,000 terrorists are being released as part of the deal, the majority of those with "blood on their hands" will be exiled from the country. The others who will return to Gaza and the West Bank will be subject to constant monitoring from the Israeli security services.
  5. The highest "value" Palestinian terrorists, including Marwan and Abdallah Barghouti, will not be released. Those released are mostly foot soldiers or those who helped transport terrorists, not those who necessarily planned large-scale attacks.
  6. Being able to negotiate this swap through the Egyptians with the Palestinians, and more importantly with Hamas, shows possible recalcitrance in their stance of not recognizing Israel and may signal the introduction of a period in which Middle East peace may be more attainable than ever.
  7. The Shalit family has suffered for more than five years without their son, not even knowing his physical or mental condition. It is beyond time to return Gilad to his loving family and a country that has mobilized in his support.

Arguments Against the Shalit Exchange

  1. The Israeli government has an obligation not to redeem captives at any price. If terrorists know that they will likely be freed in the future if their compatriots are able to strike a deal, Israel loses all of its deterrence power in the fight against terrorism. A 1-for-1 trade, maybe; but not 1000-for-1.
  2. Exchanging hundreds of terrorists for one Israeli soldier encourages future kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and other terror organizations. Though these groups have constantly engaged in such terrorist attacks, they will now be even more motivated.
  3. There is no such thing as a “harmless” terrorist. Many of the thousands of terrorists released in past exchanges have returned to terror and those being released now will probably return to terror as well. Amnesty to terrorists who were sentenced to life in prison disregards the whole purpose of putting them in prison in the first place.
  4. Hamas has had dramatically waning prominence amongst the Palestinian people since its violent overthrow of Gaza in 2007 and, more recently, because of its opposition to the Palestinian Authority Unilateral Independence plan. Giving them such a victory like this will certainly boost their stature and importance.
  5. IDF soldiers who have risked life and limb to capture these 1,000 terrorists over the past few decades will see this as a betrayal of their service and sacrifice. Tens, if not hundreds, of soldiers have been killed in these operations and to just let them all go free is like turning your back on the soldiers.
  6. Thousands of Israelis lost loved ones in attacks committed by these terrorists. Allowing the terrorists now to be released will harm these civilians in immeasurable ways - they may suffer emotional trauma, even PTSD, and will lose the closure they received when their family's murderers were imprisoned.

Past Exchanges

After wars with its neighbors, Israel has exchanged prisoners of war for Israeli soldiers and civilians. Though Israel has been reluctant to negotiate with terrorists, it has agreed to exchange prisoners held in its jails for Israelis captured in the past. The following chart lists other exchange deals:

Released to Israel
Released by Israel
Six Day War
11 soldiers, 3 soldiers' bodies, and 1 civilian body
6,000 Egyptian/Syrian soldiers
War of Attrition
3 soldiers
46 Syrian soldiers
Yom Kippur War
242 soldiers
8,400 Egyptian soldiers
April 1975
39 soldiers bodies
92 Egyptian security prisoners
March 1979
1 soldier
76 Lebanese terrorists
November 1983
6 soldiers
4,500 soldiers; 99 security prisoners
June 1984
3 soldiers, 3 civilians, and 5 soldiers' bodies
291 soldiers, 13 civilians, 74 bodies
May 1985
3 soldiers
1,150 Palestinian prisoners
September 1991
1 soldiers body
2 Palestinian terrorists
July 1996
2 soldiers bodies
123 bodies of terrorists
January 2004
3 soldiers' bodies 1 civilian
430 Palestinian prisoners, 60 terrorist bodies
July 2008
2 soldiers bodies
6 Lebanese terrorists, 200 bodies

Israel Defense Forces Protocol

IDF commanders know that one of the best "prizes" for a terrorist organization is the kidnapping of a soldier to hold as ransom for the release of imprisoned terrorists. In response, the IDF established its "Hannibal Protocol," which is ingrained in IDF doctrine and taught to every IDF soldier. The "Hannibal Protocol" stipulates that if a soldier sees another soldier being kidnapped on the battlefield, or is being kidnapped himself, he must do everything in his power to assure that the kidnappers do not escape with their captive. For example, before the ground invasion of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008, IDF commanders warned their troops that Hamas would try to kidnap soldiers. It was stressed that the soldiers must be ready to kill their friends, or themselves, to prevent capture. One officer in the Golani Brigade went so far as saying that a soldier should detonate grenades to blow himself up in the case that all other options failed to stop a kidnapping. The IDF stands by this protocol, despite its grim orders, because of the belief that a captured soldier could be tortured and that their eventual release would likely involve a costly rescue operation or a prisoner exchange and that these options are worse than death.

One reason for exchanges is that Israel does not believe in leaving its soldiers behind on the battlefield. The IDF will mount rescue operations if they are feasible, and prefer that tactic to prisoner exchanges because a successful military intervention can improve morale and show the enemy Israel's strength. The most famous example was Operation Thunderbolt in 1976, during which IDF special forces flew more than 3,000 miles into Uganda to rescue Jewish and Israeli hostages taken captive by Palestinian terrorists; 103 people were rescued with only 1 IDF casualty.

Such operations carry great risk and can have a negative impact if they involve loss of life or fail to free the captive(s).

On October 9, 1994, a terrorist disguised as a Hasidic Jew offered an Israeli soldier with American citizenship a ride. Nachshon Wachsman was taken hostage and two days later appeared in a video saying that if Israel did not release Sheik Ahmed Yassin and 200 other Palestinian prisoners by October 14, Hamas would kill him. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin refused to negotiate. After receiving intelligence that Wachsman was being held in an Arab village near Ramot, the elite hostage rescue force Sayeret Matkal raided the location. They were too late. Wachsman was murdered by his captors. During the operation, one soldier was killed and 10 others wounded.

An effort was also made to rescue Gilad Shalit shortly after his capture in 2006. The IDF invaded Gaza in Operation Summer Rains to secure his release, but the operation was unsuccessful and seven soldiers were killed.

Importance of Pidyon Shvuyim in Judaism

The capture and ransoming of Jews is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, Jews have been threatened by their enemies and Jewish communities sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to redeem captives. Indeed, the Talmud considers pidyon shvuyim a commandment and says that captivity is worse than starvation and death. Maimonides rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing commandments such as “you shall not harden your heart”; “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Additionally, one who delays in ransoming a captive is considered like a murderer. Indeed, Maimonides himself wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and collect money for pidyon shvuyim; the Cairo Genizah even contains receipts to Jews who donated funds for that purpose.

According to the Mishnah, there is one major exception to pidyon shvuyim:

One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of Tikkun Olam (precaution for the general good) and one does not help captives escape because of Tikkun Olam…

This Mishnah was codified by the standard codes of Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud gives two different explanations for this edict:

A) Do not ransom captives because it will eventually cause a great financial burden on the community;
B) Redeeding captives will give incentive to the kidnappers to seize more captives

The Talmud, however, does not decide which explanation is correct and contemporary scholars have debated the issue for generations. There have been those, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who were against such exchanges, while there have also been outspoken proponents of the deals, such as Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi.

Rabbi Goren, for example, says that we must learn the law from the Mishnah in Gittin that we do not pay more than their value. He adds that the safety of one or a few Jews in captivity does not take precedence over the safety of the entire public. In addition, he argues that a community or country should not put itself in possible danger to save Jews from definite danger. In the Shalit case, one Jew was in definite danger and the ransom paid involved releasing prisoners who could threaten the community by returning to terror. According to Goren's reasoning, the deal for Gilad Shalit release would not be consistent with halakhah.

On the other hand, Rabbi Halevi, the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, holds that terrorists will continue to try and kidnap Jews regardless of what Israel does, so paying the ransom would not increase terror. Additionally, the government of Israel decided that if an Israeli soldier sees that the State will not redeem its soldiers, they will retreat from the battlefield instead of facing the enemies and risking capture. Therefore, Rabbi Halevi's reasoning could be used to justify Israel's decision to make the exchange for Shalit.

What Would You Do?

The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier presents Israel's leaders with terrible moral, legal, political and strategic dilemmas.

  • Jewish law commands that ransom be paid for a captive unless the price may endanger the community.
  • Paying ransom risks encouraging Israel's enemies to take more captives. On the other hand, if no effort is made to redeem a soldier, how will other soldiers react when called upon to fight for their country? Will they fight if they believe their leaders will abandon them if they are captured?
  • The family of the captive and their supporters protest in front of your house every day demanding that you bring their child home. The media publicizes the captive's plight and the suffering of the family. Can you tell them there is nothing to be done because one life is not worth the risk to the country posed by paying the ransom?
  • Is it worth the risk of more soldiers being kidnapped to pay a ransom for the release of one?
  • The families of the victims of the terrorists who are now in jail are sympathetic to the soldier's plight, but ask why one soldier's life is more valuable than those of their loved ones who died at the hands of terrorists? Shouldn't the terrorists have to pay for their crimes?
  • If terrorists know that even if they are captured their leaders can eventually win their release by kidnapping soldiers, will they be more motivated to attack Israelis?

If you were Israel's prime minister, what would you do if a soldier was taken hostage?

Historical Studies & Sources:
Abraham Ibn Daud, Sefer Ha-qabbalah, ed. Gerson Cohen, London, 1967, English side, pp. 63-66
Irving Agus, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Vol. One, New York, 1970, pp. 125-151
Salo Baron, The Jewish Community, Vol. 2, Philadelphia, 1942, pp. 333-339 and Vol. 3, pp. 213-215
Eliezer Bashan, Shviyah Upedut …1391-1830, Ramat Gan, 1980
Gerson Cohen, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, Philadelphia, 1991, pp. 157-208
Encyclopaedia Judaica - Ransoming of Captives
Mirik Garzi, “The History of the Takkanah: Ein Podin” …, Iyar 5752, 46 pp. (unpublished)
S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Vol. I, Berkeley 1967, pp. 327-330 and Vol. II, Berkeley, 1971, pp. 137-138
Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. Ransom
Maimonides, Igrot Harambam, ed. Shilat, Vol. I, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 60-71; Teshuvot Harambam, ed. Blau, Jerusalem, 1960, nos. 16, 91, 452
Cecil Roth, Personalities and Events in Jewish History, Philadelphia, 1953, pp. 112-135

Halakhic Studies & Sources:
R. Yehudah Gershuni, Hadarom 33 (Nissan 5731), pp. 27-37 (summarized in R. J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. I, New York and Hoboken, 1977, pp. 18-20)
R. Shlomo Goren, Sefer Torat Hamedinah, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 424-436 (= Hazofeh, 11 Sivan 5745)
R. Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekha Rav, Vol. 7, Tel Aviv, 5746, No. 53 (analyzed by R. David Ellenson in: Judaism and Modernity etc., Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 341-367)
R. Avraham Yitzhak Halevi Khlab, Tehumin 4 (5743), pp. 108-116
R. Yisrael Melamed, Shanah B’shanah 5746, pp. 241-246
R. Natan Ortner, Tehumin 13 (5752-5753), pp. 257-263
R. Yehudah Shaviv, Noam 17 (5734), pp. 96-115
Itamar Warhaftig, Tehumin 6 (5745), pp. 305-308
R. Shaul Yisraeli, Torah Shebe’al Peh 17 (5735), pp. 69-76
R. Moshe Zemer, Halakhah Shefuya, Tel Aviv, 1993, pp. 202-205, 344 = Evolving Halakhah, Woodstock,Vermont, 1999, pp. 225-229

The sections in this article dealing with Pidyon Shvuyim in Jewish law are taken from Professor David Golinkin's article on the subject of redemption of captives. Prof. Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.