At an international boundary between two countries that do not have diplomatic relations, recently fought a war and have a bitter history of violence, one might expect to find fortified gun emplacements, concertina wire, and the deep diesel rumble of idling tanks. But the Rosh Hanikra border crossing that sits at the juncture of Israel, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea is an exquisite, peaceful corner of the Middle East. Set atop chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, and situated next to a vast array of grottoes formed by millennia of water lapping at the rocks, Rosh Hanikra (Hebrew for head of the grottoes) is a national park, a popular tourist attraction, and is even occasionally a location chosen by Israeli couples for their weddings. Sitting at the local restaurant, looking out at the Mediterranean, it’s almost possible to forget that one is at a military site.
A line of buoys in the sea, marking the official border between Israel and Lebanon, stretches out from the shoreline to the horizon. In the distance, one can often see Israel Defense Forces (IDF) naval gunships assiduously patrolling the demarcation line.
But in the early morning hours of April 22, 1979, there was only one ship moving along this coast, a small rubber skiff that had left from Tyre, Lebanon and was headed for Nahariya—an Israeli city of 50,000 people four miles south of Rosh Hanikra. After pulling the boat up on the beach in Nahariya, its four occupants, PLO terrorists led my a young man named Samir Kuntar, killed a policeman who had come upon them. They entered a nearby apartment building, waking a young Israeli couple, Danny and Smadar Haran, and their two children. Hearing gunshots, Danny helped Smadar and their two-year-old daughter, Yael, into a crawlspace in their bedroom. He was headed for the door with their other daughter, four-year-old Einat, when the terrorists burst into the Haran’s apartment.
Suspecting there were more than two people in the apartment, the terrorists spent a few minutes searching for the other occupants. Trying to keep her two-year-old from making a noise and giving away their position, Smadar kept her hand over her daughter’s mouth, accidentally suffocating her to death.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Smadar described what happened next:
“…the terrorists took Danny and Einat down to the beach. There, according to eyewitnesses, one of them shot Danny in front of Einat so that his death would be the last sight she would ever see. Then he smashed my little girl’s skull in against a rock with his rifle butt. That terrorist was Samir Kuntar.”
Last week, on June 29, the Israeli cabinet, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, agreed to release Samir Kuntar (who is currently serving four consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison), four other Lebanese nationals, and the remains of Hezbollah fighters killed in the 2006 Lebanon War in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud “Udi” Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. For Israel, this was a decision with far-reaching implications. Capitulation to terrorist demands has dire consequences.
After the recent rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, a French and Colombian citizen, and three Americans in the Colombian jungle, reports surfaced implying that money may have been exchanged for their release. The four had been held hostage for more than 6 years by FARC guerrillas. Upon their release, it was suggested that American money, not a military rescue operation brought their ordeal to an end. These rumors have been strenuously denied by American, Colombian, and French officials, and appear not be based in fact. If money had changed hands, the exchange would represent a violation of a longstanding American doctrine vis-à-vis terrorist demands.
The stated policy of the United States for the last two decades is that it does not make concessions to terrorists. Specifically, the government will not cut deals to free U.S. nationals held hostage. This policy is not based on some deep philosophical code, or reverence for historical precedent, but rather on a basic principle: by conceding to the demands of terrorists we encourage them to perpetuate their behavior. No matter how painful it is to see our fellow citizens spirited away, held and perhaps even tortured, giving in to terrorist demands in order to set the captives free today only ensures that there will be additional hostages taken tomorrow. Capitulation to terrorists precipitates more terrorism.
We need look no further than Israel for proof of the folly of capitulating to terrorist demands.
For decades Israel has pursued a policy of short-term fixes to the problem of captured soldiers and citizens, trading jailed terrorists for return of Israeli nationals. Sometimes Israeli commandos swoop in to rescue hostages (in Entebbe, for example), but in many instances convicted criminals and terrorists have been traded for the release of Israelis held hostage.
One can understand the urge of political leaders to bring home their citizens by any means necessary, especially in the light of the enormous pressure the public puts on them. However, wise leaders think beyond the here and now, and seriously examine what the consequences of their actions might be in 20 or even 40 years.
In this instance, Ehud Olmert is not a wise leader. But he is also not the first Israeli Prime Minister to capitulate to terrorist demands.
In 1968, after an El Al flight to Algeria was hijacked, Israel agreed to release 16 prisoners, none murderers, and all close to completing their sentences, in return for the release of 12 Israeli citizens. This appears to have been the first time Israel capitulated to terrorist demands for the release of prisoners. The El Al hostage deal set a standard which emboldened terrorists to hijack more planes and take more hostages in the following years.
In 1971, Israel agreed to free one jailed terrorist for the release of a (living) Israeli held hostage in Lebanon. In 1979, 66 prisoners were released from Israelis jails in order to get one soldier back. By the 1980s, Israel’s trades to free hostages had grown even more lopsided.
In 1983, Israel released 4,700 prisoners, mostly Palestinians, in exchange for 66 Israeli soldiers who had been captured in Lebanon.
In 1985, Israel traded 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners (many of whom were convicted murderers) to terrorist Ahmed Jibril in exchange for three captured IDF soldiers who were returned alive.
In 1998, Israel returned the remains of 40 Hezbollah fighters, and received in exchange the remains of one Israeli soldier.
In 2004, in a deal with Hezbollah, Israel released more than 400 prisoners including high-level Hezbollah officials, in return for the bodies of three soldiers and a (living) Israeli businessman who had been kidnapped in Kuwait while engaging in criminal activity.
And now, in 2008, Israel has agreed to trade convicted prisoners with blood on their hands—including Kuntar, one of the most notorious and brutal terrorists held in Israeli custody—for two dead soldiers. The transfer of Kuntar will be facilitated by the Red Cross at Rosh Hanikra and is expected to take place in the coming days. Certainly it will be a relief to the parents of Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev to be able to bury their children and bring closure to two years of unimaginable suffering. But what will be the long-term cost to the State of Israel?
A potentially catastrophic one. Israel, now more than ever, needs to maintain a tough and consistent policy toward its enemies, especially Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah. In its current situation, Israel can ill afford to appear weak.
Hamas still holds Gilad Shalit, the soldier who was captured more than two years ago and is still held captive (and alive) in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations with Hamas for the release of Shalit have been ongoing for many months, but surely the Islamist group now believes it has a stronger hand to play. If the bodies of two soldiers are worth the release of Kuntar, Hamas will now demand the release of more terrorists “with blood on their hands” for the living Shalit. Indeed a top Hamas offical, Mahmoud Zahar, noted to the Associated Press that Hamas ought to make use of Israel’s decision “to release people whom Israel accused of having blood on their hands…” indicating that the Islamist group now sees a greater opportunity to insist Israel free murderers in return for Shalit.
With Iran’s recent testing of long-range missiles and the growing tension between the two adversaries, it is in Israel’s best interest to be seen by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as resolute and unwavering. Any intimation of Israel’s weakness is likely to breed increasingly aggressive behavior from Iran. Agreeing to the hostage capitulation with the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah works against the Jewish state’s interest.
In addition to weakening Israel’s position with Hamas and Iran, the cabinet’s recent decision could prove most detrimental to its relations with Hezbollah. Again and again, in terrorists-for-hostage deals, the “Party of God” has come out on top—in terms of both domestic and international prestige, and actual gains. In this latest instance, Hezbollah gets the return of its most famous operative, publicly humiliates the “Zionist entity,” increases its standing among Lebanese, and fortifies its reputation in the Arab world. Quite an achievement. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, will certainly remind the his neighbors and the world at large that he has achieved his long-stated goal of bringing Kuntar home.
Indeed the capture of Goldwasser and Regev, which directly precipitated the 2006 war in Lebanon, was launched with the stated purpose of gaining soldiers to trade for Kuntar. When Kuntar was not included in the 2004 deal, Nasrallah vowed to kidnap more Israelis. On the first day of the war, Nasrallah told the New York Times that “The prisoners will not be returned except through one way—indirect negotiations and a trade.” As a matter of fact, the code name for the Hezbollah operation to capture Israeli soldiers was “Truthful Promise.” Now he will be able to say to the world, but more importantly to the people of Lebanon, that he kept his promise.
When archterrorist Samir Kuntar is released later this month and crosses from Israel through the Rosh Hanikra border crossing into Lebanon, his freedom will signify more than another blow to Israel’s already diminished image in the Arab world, and more than another black mark against an increasingly incompetent prime minister. It will serve as a clear signal to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that kidnapping Israelis is, and will continue to be, a successful strategy. And 40 years after Israel first capitulated to terrorist demands, Israelis, both at home and abroad, will be even less safe than before.
As a sole superpower in an unstable world, the United States is likely to face hostage situations in the near future. We would do well not to follow in our troubled Middle Eastern ally’s footsteps.
Joshua Miller, an intern at the World Policy Journal, is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.