Middle Eastern Currency: Peace or Occupation

On Tuesday, October 18, 2011 the entire Israeli public shouted at the top of their lungs: Hallelujah as Israel’s lone, kidnapped soldier crossed the border from the Gaza Strip after five years and four months (1940 days) in captivity.  He returned to the land of milk and honey (but no oil, unfortunately) and to his family.

Gilad was nineteen years old at the time of his capture on June 25, 2006 by members of the Palestinian resistance organization, Hamas.  Time and time again, as Gilad’s absence dragged on for months and then for years, the dilemma arose as to whether or not to make a deal with Hamas.  But the math didn’t work.  How much is one Israeli soldier worth?  At what cost can we make a deal?  If we analyze that question a bit, it is also a way of asking What is the value of a human life?  Of course, this is an impossible equation to solve —  yet, the  Israeli government, under mounting pressure from the public, indeed made an attempt to solve the equation, and the solution has been discussed on every news program and in the newspapers for an entire week.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu was forced into making one of the most difficult decisions of his political career. This is particularly noteworthy, as Netanyahu tends to make very few decisions, preferring to sit on the fence hoping the issues will disappear or wait until it is way too late to make any decision at all.  On the one hand, we had a young soldier; a teenager, held incommunicado for five years, in God knows what conditions.  Every Israeli mother saw herself as a potential Aviva Shalit (Gilad’s mother). The pain in her eyes, in each television appeal, was unbearable.  On the other hand, the price demanded by Hamas was exceedingly high – the release of over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, fifteen of whom were serving consecutive life sentences for carrying out some of the most vicious attacks the country has seen.  Netanyahu, who had declared on numerous occasions that he would never release prisoners with “blood on their hands”, was forced to eat his words.

If we take a look at these numbers the first thought that comes to mind is: Damn, that’s one high quality Israeli. Or: Those are some messed up Palestinian prisoners.  I am a strong believer that no human life is more valuable than another, but if we take this issue and translate it into financial terms we see that in today’s market the exchange rate for one captured Israeli soldier equals one thousand Palestinian prisoners and change.  Apparently, Hamas is not unduly concerned with exchange rates;  they are happy to welcome back over one thousand of their troops.  I imagine that the self esteem of each, individual returnee, is at an all time low – What does he (i.e. Shalit) have that I don’t?  Why is my worth 1/1000 of his?

This deal reflects the essence of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. We have two groups on both sides: each side has its stridently vocal minority and the silenced majority Unfortunately, the vocal extreme has found its way to power on both sides.  Due to Israel’s election system, although Netanyahu did not win the majority of votes in the previous election, he succeeded in forming a governing coalition with himself as Prime Minister.  His sidekick, Foreign Minister Lieberman, is, in my mind, a direct descendent of Stalin, with his despicable hatemongering.  Of course, Bibi (his nickname) will always be Bibi – avoiding President Obama’s pressure to begin peace talks, and ignoring Israel’s real and pressing social problems, allowing the rich to get richer as the poor are left behind to bite the dust.  On the Palestinian side, the Hamas are in charge in Gaza; even though the majority of their voters have indicated that they are supportive of a peaceful solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict, Hamas has chosen the way of the vocal minority, who prefer continued violent conflict.  Extremists among them fire rockets at civilians in Israel; they are not stupid — they know how to grab Israel’s attention.  Exploding rockets get higher ratings than political debate.  They receive notoriety.  These minority groups blind us, side track us from the truth. Here’s the truth, if you can handle it:  the truth is that both sides want peace…and it doesn’t have to be so f***ing hard.

The Silenced Majority must crank up the volume.  In Israel, they did so this summer.  Over half a million people protested on the streets against the government.  They were angry.  They had had enough.  They had seen too much injustice.  Together, they stood (camping out in the streets) against increasing living expenses.  This social protest avoided political issues. But the next one will and should raise all the issues that are bottled up inside every person living in the Middle East.  Israel needs to set the tone.  Israel needs to let go of its superiority complex (i.e. 1/1,027). Even if we believe are superior, although I guarantee we aren’t, we need humility.  It is easy to bury your head in the sand, only paying attention to the ones who provoke us and try to inflict harm. We must set the example so that people on both sides of the border can sleep safe at night. We are like a person who turns a blind eye when he knows his neighbor’s wife is being abused.  We have a responsibility as the stronger nation.  If the silenced majority were to take action – take control – the equivalent party on the other side of the border is bound to react.  I can’t say that this is the solution to all of our problems, but it beats killing each other.