Contemporary Issues In Halakha: Redemption Of Captives


Before delving into the study material, I would like to provide an overview of Israel’s prisoner exchanges in recent history by focusing in on three of the more well known cases.

1) The Jibril Agreement was a prisoner exchange which took place on May 21, 1985 between the Israeli government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – which was headed by Ahmed Jibril. As part of the agreement, Israel released 1,150 security prisoners in exchange for three Israeli prisoners captured during the First Lebanon War. Among the prisoners released by Israel were Kozo Okamoto – one of the perpetrators of the Lod Airport Massacre who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ahmed Yasin – a spiritual leader of Hamas who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1983.

The Israeli government faced harsh public criticism for agreeing to release so many security prisoners, among them those sentenced to life imprisonment and responsible for the killing of many Israeli citizens, particularly since the exchange did not include Israelis who were captured in the Battle of Sultan Ya’akub. Many of the Palestinian prisoners released in this agreement later went on to form the backbone of the leadership of the First Intifada, which broke out less than three years after the agreement.

2) In October 2000 in Sheeba Farms (border area between Israel and Lebanon), Hezbollah captured three IDF soldiers who were killed either during the operation or in its immediate aftermath. A prisoner swap was carried out on 29 January 2004. Israel released 30 Lebanese and 400 Palestinian prisoners, handed over the remains of 59 Lebanese militants and civilians, and maps showing Israeli mines in South Lebanon. In exchange, Israel received businessman and former army colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum and the remains of the three IDF soldiers, Adi Avitan, Benyamin Avraham & Omar Sawaid.

Aside from the lopsided numbers, the deal was even more controversial for two reasons. First of all, it became known that Elhanan Tannenbaum was kidnapped by Hezbollah after being lured out of Israelunder the false pretenses of a drug deal. He was kidnapped in Kuwait and taken to Lebanon. His abduction is believed to have been conducted by Imad Mugniyah, a senior member of Hezbollah. The abduction was executed by Sheik Kais Obeid, an Israeli Arab, a grandson of a former Israeli parliament(the Knesset) member from the Labor Party, who crossed the lines to become senior officer for Hezbollah. Obeid was a close friend of Tannenbaum. Following his release, Tannenbaum was placed under arrest for his illegal actions that led up to his capture. He agreed to a plea bargain and admitted to the reasons behind his travel to Kuwait and described the details of his capture. In exchange, he was not tried for any crime and served no jail time. In December 2006, Tannenbaum, for the first time, admitted that he traveled abroad to complete a drug deal. He had expected to make $200,000.

Secondly, Mustafa Dirani and Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid and were among the Lebanese prisoners released. These two individuals were kidnapped by Israel, in 1989 and 1994 respectively, for use as bargaining chips in the effort to secure the release of the most famous of the Israeli MIAs (missing in action), Ron Arad. Fearing the release of these men would end any hope of finding Arad, his family attempted to take legal action to prevent their release. Nothing came of this effort.

3) Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were Israeli soldiers serving in reserve duty when captured along the border by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, sparking the second Israel-Lebanon war.

On July 16, 2008, the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev were returned to Israel in an Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap. An examination of the bodies determined that the two reservists were most likely killed during the initial attack, as Israeli security experts believed to be the case all along.

In exchange, Israel returned to Lebanon Samir Kuntar and four other Hezbollah fighters captured by Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War, as well as the remains of 199 Hizbullah militants.

Samir Kuntar is a Lebanese Druze militant and member of the Palestine Liberation Front. In Israel, Kuntar is considered the perpetrator of one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in the country’s history . On April 22, 1979, at the age of 16, he participated in the attempted kidnapping of an Israeli family in Nahariya that resulted in the deaths of four Israelis and two of his fellow kidnappers. Kuntar was convicted in an Israeli court for murder of an Israeli policeman, Eliyahu Shahar, 31 year-old Danny Haran, and Haran’s 4-year-old daughter, Einat Haran. He was also convicted of indirectly causing the death of two-year-old Yael Haran by suffocation, as her mother, Smadar, tried to quiet her crying while hiding from Kuntar. In 1980 Kuntar was sentenced to four life sentences.

Immediately after his arrest, Kuntar admitted to the killings, but at his sentence and thereafter he denied killing the father and daughter, saying that they had been killed by security forces in the ensuing gun battle. He did admit to taking them hostage and killing Eliyahu Shahar, however.

Kuntar and the four other Hezballah fighters received a hero’s welcome in Lebanon. Not only has Kuntar never shown any remorse for his actions, but recently he has been displayed in videos operating weaponry and calling for the death of more Israelis.

At the moment, the only Israeli prisoner who is known to be alive in enemy hands is Gilad Shalit. [Editor’s Note: As the time of this class, Gilad was still in captivity. He has since been released.] He is an Israelisoldier in the standing army who was captured in a cross border raid on the crossing Kerem Shalom from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants on 25 June 2006. During the morning attack, two Palestinian militantsas well as two IDF soldiers were killed and three others wounded, aside from Shalit, who himself suffered a broken left hand and a light shoulder wound after his tank was hit with an RPG. His abductionand the following cross border raid by Hezbollah, resulting in the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev into Lebanon, were key events leading up to the conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon during summer 2006. Shalit holds a French citizenship, a fact that encouraged France and the European Union to be involved to some extent in the efforts to release him.

Shalit’s captors issued a statement on Monday, 26 June 2006, offering information on Shalit if Israel agreed to release all female Palestinian prisoners and all Palestinian prisoners under the age of 18. The statement came from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees (which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas), and a previously unknown group calling itself the Army of Islam.

Israeli forces entered Khan Yunis on 28 June 2006 to search for Shalit. According to David Siegel, a spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D. C., “Israel did everything it could in exhausting all diplomatic options and gave Mahmoud Abbas the opportunity to return the captured Israeli… This operation can be terminated immediately, conditioned on the release of Gilad Shalit.”

In September 2006, Egyptian mediators received a letter written by Gilad in which he stated that he was alive and well. The handwriting was confirmed to be that of Shalit.

In November 2006, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal indicated that Shalit was alive and in good health.

On April 7, 2007, It was reported that the captors of Gilad Shalit have transferred to Israel, via Egyptian mediators, a list of Palestinian prisoners they want freed. The list includes approximately 1300 names some of which are high ranking Fatah members.

On 4 February 2008, it was reported that Hamas had sent Gilad’s family a second letter written by him and on June 9, 2008, it was reported that Hamas sent Gilad’s family a third letter. On both occasions, the handwriting was confirmed to be that of Shalit.

For some, it seems like the three notorious prisoner exchanges described above were lopsided and simply encouraged more future abductions. To others, it seemed that this was the necessary price to pay for Israel’s dedication to its own citizens and soldiers and to the dignity of life or at least a proper burial. The question is – what does Judaism have to contribute to this discussion? Does a careful reading of the sources direct us to be in favor or opposed to these deals? Must we bring Gilad Shalit home at “any price” or must he sacrifice himself for the welfare of the nation?

Source Sheets

Source Sheet Part 1

Source Sheet Part 2