Views among IDF soldiers this week over the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange broadly mirrored those among the wider public, but they had some unique insights of their own.
The younger soldiers, those who started their service only recently, were broadly in favour of the emerging deal. Uriya, a machine-gunner in the Golani Brigade who began his first operational posting last month, said: “From my point of view, what is important is how his mother feels. Nothing can compare to that. Any price is worthwhile, even 1,000 terrorists.”
His friend, Tamir, added a less emotional reason.
“It’s true that there may be security problems with letting terrorists go free but when I am on patrol and I know that my country will go to such lengths to set me free if I am taken prisoner, it gives a feeling of confidence.”
More senior soldiers saw things from a different perspective. Two officers, taking a short lunch break from leading patrols through the Kasbah of Hebron, were more skeptical of the deal. Uri was already thinking of the situation he will have to handle in a few weeks when dozens of Hamas members may be back from Israeli prisons to their old haunts.
“There is no question that things here will be a lot less peaceful once all those murderers are here again. No one has any illusions that they will not go back to their old ways. We know how hard it is to arrest just one of these guys and now we are going to have many more of them to handle.”
Tomer, another officer, said: “I can’t justify a deal that may lead to many more Israelis dying in terror attacks. In the end, Gilad Shalit wasn’t a civilian who was suddenly kidnapped. He is a soldier who was attacked while sitting in a tank, and a soldier’s job is to defend civilians. I don’t think we can justify a deal where one soldier goes free but many civilians may ultimately lose their lives.”
“I don’t think there is much point in debating the fine points of this deal,” said a colonel, whose soldiers are currently on alert in the south of the country. “The whole Shalit issue has taken on national and social proportions and it has repercussions that go beyond military considerations. My main lesson from all this is that we have to do everything possible to prevent another similar case. That’s why in every training exercise I emphasise to my soldiers that the enemy’s primary objective will always be to take prisoners and we have to do everything possible to stymie their plans.”
A commission headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar is currently preparing guidelines for future negotiations over prisoner deals with a view to preventing further lopsided exchanges. But in the army, few believe anything will change.
“In the end, another soldier will be taken prisoner,” said a combat pilot, “we have to be prepared for that, it is an inseparable part of warfare. And when it happens, the public hysteria will begin again, just like it has with Gilad Shalit.”