Just a day before a prisoner swap is to take place between Israel and Hamas, Israel's Supreme Court heard 11th-hour petitions against the deal, which has reignited an emotional debate pitting the desire to free kidnapped soldier Sgt. Gilad Shalit against the fear of victims of terrorist attacks, who want perpetrators to remain locked up.
Opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Israelis support releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Mr. Shalit's freedom. But the move is reopening psychological wounds from attacks that killed dozens of Israelis in the past two decades. If freeing the prisoners is followed by a resurgence of terrorism, as some opponents expect, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could see a rapid dissolution of the wave of widespread public support he is riding.
Israeli supporters and naysayers alike showed up at the courthouse on Monday while the justices heard arguments. As Shalit's father, Noam, arrived to make a case for the release, a supporter shouted, "The people are with you!" A relative of an attack victim shot back, "Who says you speak for the people?"
The court was expected to reject the petition to shelve the deal, paving the way for Tuesday's intricate swap. Israel will release 27 Palestinian female prisoners once it receives confirmation that Shalit is alive, and another 450 prisoners after Shalit is released to the Red Cross, which will bring him to Egypt. Some 40 Palestinians will be deported abroad. The remainder are expected to be released in about two months.
Israelis have been bombarded with images of the captured soldier, his traumatized family, and archived footage of attacks committed by Palestinian prisoners slated for release. Journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff wrote in the Hebrew edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz that assessing the security threat of releasing the prisoners has been lost in the public debate in Israel, which focuses instead on the competing values and emotions.
"The public discourse is being conducted in terms of emotion and obligation – solidarity with the family of the kidnapped soldier, the obligation to bring back a combat soldier taken prisoner, and the anger of the release of murders that slaughtered hundreds of Israelis,'' they wrote.
"Israel has let down terror victims,'' says Mr. Bauer, complaining that the Israeli government and media favored the Shalit family over those of the victims of the attacks. "We have been demonized."
Despite Israelis' typical aversion to negotiating with terrorists, when the conflicting sentiments are untangled, the sympathy for Shalit and his family has taken precedence. The result is a lopsided prisoner swap that is the latest in a string of similar trades going back nearly three decades.
One of the most well known is the 1985 swap known as the Jibril Agreement. Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of three Israeli soldiers being held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In a July 2010 press conference about negotiations for Shalit's release, Mr. Netanyahu said of the Jibril Agreement, "almost half of them returned to engage in terror and to murder dozens of Israelis at their own hands. … Moreover, those released in the Jibril deal constituted the solid nucleus of the leadership of the first intifada, during which hundreds of Israelis lost their lives in suicide and terror attacks.
Therefore, the decision to release terrorists is a difficult and complex one for any government. We are not only talking about saving lives but also about endangering many lives." (See full remarks here.)
It's a price that Israelis have become resigned to, says Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert.
The deal is "drudging up the worst memories from a terrible period. That's obviously hard for everyone. But the consensus is that we knew this was going to happen and that we lost the battle already. … There is no mass protest against this,'' she says.
The nationwide identification with the trauma of Shalit's family, which waged a public information campaign that made their son a household name, trumps fears of future attacks and the sense of injustice toward past victims, Ms. Scheindlin says: "In Israel, the present is always more important than the future. They are weighing a live soldier in captivity against the future risk of letting people out.''