Israeli hostage dilemma: negotiate with Hamas?

Palestinian militants linked to the organization are holding an Israeli soldier captured Sunday.

With one of their soldiers in captivity for the first time in more than a decade, Israeli officials are facing one of the greatest dilemmas in a time of conflict: whether or not to negotiate with a group who has taken someone hostage.

The predicament arose Sunday when Palestinian militants kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit and then dragged him away to a kilometer-long tunnel infiltrating Israel from Gaza.

Three Hamas-linked militant groups demanded Monday that Israel release all Palestinian women and minors in exchange for the soldier. A spokesman for one of the groups said the message was authentic.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other government ministers have been quick to reiterate the official policy of Israel as well as a plethora of Western nations, including the US: no negotiations with terrorists, including an exchange of prisoners.

But Israel's history with its regional foes shows that the country's line on negotiating over hostages and prisoners of war is fuzzy and complex. And the hard-to-swallow reality, some observers here argue, is that negotiations may be the only route to ensuring the captive gets out alive.

"We can come to terms with Israeli soldiers being killed, but we can't come to terms with Israelis being taken as prisoners of war," explains Anshel Pfeffer, a senior analyst for the Jerusalem Post. The last time an Israeli soldier was kidnapped, in 1994, the army launched a rescue operation that ended in the death of both the kidnapped soldier, Nahshon Wachsman, and an officer involved in the failed rescue attempt.

"The popular feeling is that an Israeli citizen or soldier must not be in the hands of the enemy, so some impossible mission has to be done," says Mr. Pfeffer. "The reality is, grin and bear it, and deal with terrorists."

That raises ethical questions, he acknowledges, that many here are afraid to touch. But they are issues that have come up in the past, when Western hostages were held in Iran and in Lebanon, and are being raised with increasing frequency vis-à-vis Iraq, presenting governments, employers, and families with the conundrum of how to deal with hostage-takers.

Israel's message on this is mixed. While Mr. Olmert says that he isn't interested in exchanging Cpl. Shalit for Palestinian prisoners, other sources here suggest that his very statement of refusing to negotiate can be read as an opening to the people holding the kidnapped soldier. Moreover, Israel has a long history of negotiating with groups it considers to be terrorist organizations, even making lopsided exchanges to bring soldiers and other citizens home.

In 2004, the Lebanon-based Hizbullah won the release of several dozen of its militants held by Israel in exchange for one Israeli citizen, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was lured to Lebanon as part of a drug deal gone awry. The exchange also included the remains of three Israeli soldiers. Israeli experts of prisoner exchanges also point to the Jibril Deal of 1985, in which Israeli won the release of three of its soldiers in return for setting free more than 1,100 Palestinian and other prisoners.

Some Israeli critics say this has set a worrying precedent, while others say that it shows the lengths to which Israel is willing to go bring its boys home. Moreover, cultural norms have shaped past exchanges.

In Judaism, if a married man goes missing in action, his wife is unable to remarry. Even if it is highly likely that he died in the field, the family is forbidden to hold the traditional week of mourning unless they have buried him. Meanwhile, many religious Jews hold that it is unethical to placate kidnappers, citing a Talmudic discussion on the matter, because this will only encourage more kidnapping.

Indeed, this has been the logic behind the reluctance of many nations to negotiate with hostage takers. Still, it is a door that Israel has left open before, and that might be left open now.

"In this case, because it's Hamas, the prime minister has already declared that he is not going to release prisoners, and I personally feel that it is better not to say anything," says Zeev Schiff, a military commentator with the Haaretz newspaper. "He drew a line ... but from a tactical point of view, experts will usually tell you, don't say no, but don't promise."

This will make life much more difficult for Olmert. Israel has threatened a major military operation in retaliation for the kidnapping, during which two other soldiers were killed, and there has been a significant buildup of forces around the Gaza Strip.

The territory, from which Israel withdrew last August, has seen increasingly deadly clashes, with at least 14 Palestinian civilian casualties over the past two weeks. More than 150 rockets have been fired by Palestinians on southern Israeli towns in the past month.

Israel has accepted Egypt's offer to intercede in an attempt to win the soldier's release. And according to Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Aronson, Israel will wait out the diplomatic efforts, both because of failed rescued operations in the past, and because it currently has time on its side.

"Since the legitimacy of the Hamas government is at stake, Israel can afford to wait a little bit, to find out where the soldier is being held, and to let international pressure be brought to bear on them," says Prof. Aronson. "And there is a lot of internal Palestinian pressure as to whether it was a wise decision to do this, even on the eve of the agreement on the prisoners' document," referring to a proposal drawn up by prisoners from all Palestinian factions in support of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a referendum July 26 on the document, which implies support for a two-state solution.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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