Do not release jailed terrorists. Among the most important policies which must be adopted in the face of terrorism is the refusal to release convicted terrorists from prisons. This is a mistake that Israel, once the leader in anti-terror techniques, has made over and over again. Release of convicted terrorists before they have served their full sentences seems like an easy and tempting way of defusing blackmail situations in which innocent people may lose their lives. But its utility is momentary at best. Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the king of terrorist blackmail which they are supposed to defuse.
Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists
by Benjamin Netanyahu
So the question is: if Netanyahu could have written so confidently in 1995 about the error of releasing terrorists--why is he going ahead with that now.
One of the classic arguments for agreeing to exchange terrorists for captured soldiers is that the soldiers can be confident that the Israeli government will not leave soldiers behind.
One problem with that approached is mentioned by Netanyahu above: just as IDF soldiers will be confident when going into battle that the Israeli government will do everything possible to secure their release if captured--ironically, the terrorists too have the same reassurance and confidence that they too will be rescued from prison by their leaders through an exchange.
In addition, Melanie Phillips faults Israel's prisoner exchange with Hamas for the harm it does to the IDF: besides releasing those who performed these atrocities and encouraging the capture of more Israeli soldiers to be used as barter, strengthening Hamas while demoralizing the IDF--the release of terrorists only adds to the danger to the lives of Israel's soldiers.
So why the deal and why now?
Barry Rubin points to an answer in his analysis of the deal to release Gilad Shalit:
An interesting aspect of this development is the revelation that a key factor in the decision to end the counterattack on the Gaza Strip in early 2009, when Israel retaliated to Hamas breaking the ceasefire and launching an all-out attack, was a Hamas threat to kill Shalit if the offensive continued.Melanie Phillips explains there are actually 2 motives at work:
[I]t seems that Israel has now gone back on its previous opposition to such a deal, apparently because it fears that with Egypt about to turn hostile any chance of freeing Shalit would disappear out of the window.That may be a reassuring thought, but only if the Israeli government has a plan in mind, a plan on how to retaliate against rockets with increased range and accuracy--something that will indicate that Israel gained something more from the release of Gilad Shalit than some kind of moral victory.
...On the other hand, once Shalit comes home the Hamas in Gaza will have lost their most valuable human shield of all. For five years, they have used their young Israeli captive -- whose fate has been the focus of such public agony within Israel -- to tie the Israelis’ military hands. Now, it would seem, all such bets will be off
UPDATE: According to The Jerusalem Post, the deteriorating situation in Egypt brought about a change in the Hamas position just as it did to Israel's:
These changes were also internalized by Hamas, which understood that fallout between Israel and Egypt would also impact its ability to reach a deal with Israel. This led Hamas to take a more pragmatic approach, moving it to change its own position on some of the names on the list of terrorists set to be released.
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