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Statement in the Knesset by Defense Minister Rabin on prisoners exchange

(May 27, 1985)

As Israel was completing the third stage of the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon, efforts were intensified to arrange for a prisoner exchange. Israel was concerned mainly with its prisoners who were in the hands of the Gibril organization. On 20 May it agreed to exchange 1,150 terrorists held by it in Israel and in southern Lebanon in return for nine Israeli prisoners. This prompted questions in the Knesset. In the following speech, the defense minister explained the nature of the prisoner exchange, a move begun by the previous government. He also detailed the history of exchanges carried in the past between Israel and Arab elements. He felt that the government had acted correctly and in a "Jewish" way. Excerpts:

"...The problem of terrorism - Palestinian, Arab, Islamic - in all its forms has been with us, is with us, and, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come. The aims of the terrorist organizations are indiscriminate murder, attacks, sabotage everywhere they are able to carry out their deeds. In the context of their terrorist action over the past 17 years, terrorist organizations occasionally try to perpetrate what is called in military terminology 'hostage-bargaining attacks,' an attempt to bring about a situation whereby they capture Israeli citizens, or when the opportunity presents itself, IDF soldiers. Then, the government, the state faces a difficult and painful problem of principle, of values, a problem that touches on the roots of our experience as Jews, as people, as a Jewish state, insofar as our values and our ethical norms in the face of our day-to-day security problems are concerned. And when we face such a problem - and this is the subject of the debate taking place today in the Knesset - we must ask ourselves two questions: The first substantive question of principle is if a situation arises where Israelis fall, or are caught, or IDF soldiers fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, and there is no way to free them but to enter into negotiations, that is, to agree to pay a price for their freedom; the first substantive question of principle is: Do we enter [such negotiations] or not?

The second question applies to those who think that when there is no other way, one must enter negotiations - what is the price? Are there red lines? Are there norms? Are there lines which should not be crossed? Is there a limit, and if so, where is it? I want to remind everyone that we are discussing a situation in which citizens - it can be children, women, adults, or IDF soldiers - are in the hands of terrorists. This is not even similar to their being in the hands of Arab armies. We know who these murderous terrorist organizations are. We know how they treat - or how they could any moment treat - those in their hands. And if anyone needs a reminder, in April '83 the soldier Samir Assad was captured by the terrorists. After about a month, he was displayed alive to the media. Several weeks later, they announced that he had purportedly been killed in an Israeli air force bombardment. And today he is considered missing, and we all hope that he is still alive...

... It doesn't matter if they're citizens or soldiers. A government in Israel cannot run away from, cannot escape answering the main question: What must guide it when it has no way of freeing its civilians and soldiers from terrorists. On this issue, my view has been and continues to be - and I can express my satisfaction that all previous governments have acted according to the same view - that when there is no military option, and I stress, when there is no military option, and after a fundamental examination of all the possibilities, there is no alternative but to enter negotiations and to pay a price. We will discuss the principles of the price later on. I don't believe that an Israeli government can ignore its responsibility to its citizens from the moment they are taken hostage expressly because they are Israelis, and certainly cannot ignore the fate of its soldiers, who are sent at its command into battle and who fall captive to the terrorists, and [cannot] tell them - we abandon you to you fate. For this reason, all the governments - from the hijacking of the El Al plane in 1968 to Algeria - have taken the path of negotiations and paid a price. I don't envision and can't imagine an Israeli government ignoring its responsibility. That's not to say we must act rashly. That's not to say we need't examine ways [of acting]. That's not to say that in negotiations, we needn't examine the possibilities of reducing the price to whatever extent possible. Furthermore, there is room for establishing guidelines, and I believe that Israeli governments have so acted: If a 'bargaining attack' occurred in Israel, and hostages are held in Israel, that it is clear that there is a military option. Even when a price must be paid, when there is a military option - when you have the means and the forces - then you shouldn't capitulate, you should fight. And only when you have the possibility of fighting, you shouldn't capitulate. There was one exception - one exception based on a government decision, and this occurred at Ma'alot, when the fate of dozens of children was in the hands of murderous terrorists, and the government decided at the time to enter negotiations in Israel - for the first and only time in the history of all the Israeli governments. Whether it was at Kiryat Shmona, Beit Shean, Lahavot Habashan, at the Savoy [hotel], at Misgav Am, or in the coastal road massacre, no government - of whatever political make-up -which had a military option gave up its use - knowing there is a price, that there was liable to be a price, but that there was a possibility of fighting via the IDF, via the security forces, against such an attempt - this possibility must be exploited.'

When a 'hostage-bargaining attack' occurs in a friendly nation, we encourage that nation to use its forces - if only they would let us use our troops there! - and we share with it the moral responsibility for the military option, even if it isn't ours, to free [the hostages] knowing the risk, the price. And as for a hostile nation - at Entebbe such an operation was carried out because there was a military option. But if a hostile nation is involved, we must weigh what the military option is. It must be weighed, and if we reach the conclusion that there is no way, then in my opinion there is no alternative to entering negotiations, be they [the hostages] civilians or prisoners of war.

When we speak of the price - I know this is a painful subject. But what can we do? The problems we face are difficult, serious and painful ones, and we can't run away from them; they must be answered. The first question which all the governments answered: No political price. No political demands. And for this reason, when on 11 September last year the Red Cross brought proposals such as the opening of a certain university in Judea and Samaria, or the closing of a certain prison, the answer was an unequivocal 'no.' And MK Sarid, for your enlightenment, not one terrorist organization ever asked for peace talks in return for the freeing of hostages or IDF soldiers it was holding. The question regarding the price remains threefold: Can we allow those whose sentence is to be reduced and who are to be freed to remain in their homes in Israel or in an area under our control? Secondly, who do we free and who don't we free, according to the seriousness of their crimes? And third, the number.

Regarding the first matter, the Red Cross did not agree in the past, and so, having no choice, Israeli government in the past accepted as a precondition that those who were to be freed would be given the choice of staying within or leaving Israel's borders and the territory under our control. As far back as 1979, in exchange for the first Israeli soldier captured by the terrorists - the soldier Amram who had mistakenly crossed the lines in 1978 - Israel, for lack of alternative, agreed, and ten of the released terrorists stayed. The Israeli governments had no alternative, and in November 1983, we accepted as a precondition that those who were to be freed among the convicts in Israel would indeed be given the choice of staying in Israel. This principle has existed and has been accepted by Israeli governments since 1979.

The second question is who. I would say that until 1979, according to the best of my recollection and checking, terrorists who had shed Jewish blood were not exchanged. In the exchange carried out in 1979, ten such terrorists were freed, and I won't mention their names or their acts. In 1983, 21 of these were freed among the convicts, among them three and the commander of the attack at Beit Hadassah in which six yeshiva students were killed. This time the number is even greater, I won't deny it. They total 71.

And the third question was that of numbers. I'm not here to criticize; I know what it is for a government to have to make a decision, and I supported the 1983 exchange. But from the moment we freed 4,000 terrorists, Jibril couldn't accept only 10% of what Arafat got. I'm not justifying; I'm speaking of the results of negotiations. And after three years, I as defense minister asked myself, and the government asked itself. Is there any point in continuing the negotiations? Should we wait? Let's say we wait another year, another two years. Has time shown us that the terrorists' demands became fewer, would become fewer? All our experience on this point proved the opposite.

I appreciate the efforts of all the governments from the beginning of the war in Lebanon to bring about the release of our prisoners who fell into the hands of the terrorist organizations. The negotiating team, headed first by Attorney Marinsky, and later on by Attorney Shmuel Tarnir - and the heads of IDF manpower, Major Generals Moshe Nativ and Amos Yaron and all their aides - performed an extraordinary task, unceasing efforts; they discovered prisoners the terrorists tried to hide. With the aid of the Red Cross, the Austrian Ambassador, and Lova Eliav... extensive efforts. First of all the location, identification and guaranteeing of the welfare of our prisoners, afterwards leading, on 13 October 1983, to negotiations on all the prisoners who were in the hands of Arafat's band of murderers and those who were in the hands of Jibril's men' quit the negotiations on 21 October 1983, and the government was faced with a dilemma as to whether to continue separate negotiations with Arafat. The government decided correctly then - in the face of dangers threatening the lives of the prisoners - to continue the negotiations. We paid a heavy price of thousands of terrorists in Lebanon, along with 63 convicts, among them 21 murderers of Jews. I praise even more highly the efforts of the government at that time, which acted to renew the talks with Jibril. That wasn't easy. Jibril demanded three conditions for resuming the talks: A prior commitment to a choice for each [terrorist] either to leave Israel or remain -something which had precedents, and which Israeli governments had agreed to. The second was that there not be an Israeli veto regarding any of the terrorists they sought to free. And the third condition was that the prisoners not be punished anew for the crime for which they had been imprisoned, with their sentence now reduced. There was no choice but to agree, in the hope - and every government did so in the hope that during the negotiations, these [conditions] would be changed. And to a limited extent, we managed to achieve that. If these terms had not been accepted, negotiations would not have started. And I justify and support the decisions that were reached in this regard.

The nine prisoners who were in the hands of the terrorist organizations were returned to Israel at a painful and heavy price, and I am the last to try to conceal this. There are four who are still missing: Yehuda Katz, Zvi Feldman, Zecharia Baumel, and Samir Assad. We hold that a missing soldier is considered alive so long as there is no proof to the contrary. I ask the Knesset members: Should we continue to try to find them in the hope that they are alive, and to free them from imprisonment? Whoever thinks otherwise, let him stand up. Let him stand up. I as defense minister will continue to act unceasingly to find out what happened to them, where they are located, and to bring them back to Israel. I see this as a supreme moral responsibility which a government, a defense minister, the State of Israel, owes each of them. This is our humane, moral obligation to the fate of an Israeli, and certainly to the fate of an IDF soldier sent into battle at our command. I know the question is difficult, painful, but the government has no choice but to give a clear answer, and we gave it. All Israeli governments have acted according to the same principles, the same guidelines. In keeping with changing circumstances, things happened which are connected perhaps to numbers, but not to principles. So I am convinced that in this difficult dilemma, the government acted correctly. This is how a government in Israel must act."

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs