Unknowable Consequences: Israel’s Prisoner Swap


Today’s 1:1,027 prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas represents a number of important shifts in the Middle East dialogue.  Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner in 2006 after terrorists tunneled from Gaza into Israel to murder two IDF soldiers and take 19 year-old Shalit captive.  Although Shalit was literally a few miles from Israel, the IDF was unable to successfully extract him, leading to a five-year campaign of vigilance and solidarity across Israel.

While his homecoming will be a national celebration, the ultimate effects of the swap won’t be seen for some time.   There are about a thousand pieces to this deal but one of the biggest outcomes could be the likely future crimes of the released prisoners.

One study previously quoted by the Wall Street Journal found that prisoners released by Israel return to terror activities at a rate of 50%.  The report also found that since 2000, prisoners released for “goodwill” purposes have committed 30 terror attacks against Israel.  As a side note, Israel has released over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners since 1985; while that figure does not represent the number of freed terrorists, it does speak to the established pattern of prisoner swaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

One must wonder how parole and sentencing guidelines might differ if 50% of any class of US criminals returned to their previous ways.  While an interesting question, the comparison between normal criminals and terrorists simply doesn’t fit.  If a hardened murder kills again, that will most likely result in one or a handful of lives lost.  Likewise, a sex offender who rapes again is likely to have a small number of victims.

Known terrorists are a different breed.  Their commitment to the cause isn’t like the criminal who slips into their old ways.  Terrorists strike with purpose and maintain the same goal: kill as many people in the most visible and grotesque manner possible.  So the question becomes: How many future victims will come from today’s swap?

Ultimately today’s trade is not a new development in Israel-Palestinian relations.  These swaps have been occurring for decades and are likely to be continued into the future, if for no other reason than the swaps themselves incentivize the kidnap, murder, and imprisonment of Israelis.

While prisoner swapping might not be a diplomatic maneuver the United States overtly engages in, we face the same security issues when we release terror detainees.  Studies similar to the one quoted above suggest that Guantanamo detainees are likely to return to terror at a rate of 11% upon release.  This leaves us with the dilemma of releasing and monitoring detainees or erring on what would seem to be the side of increasing our security.  Much like the conflicted and imperfect outcome reached by Israel, any such releases are calculated on a fallible scale with the potential for future tragedy.

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