The attack was in part the product of Israel’s terrible 2011 decision to trade 1000 Hamas and other terrorist prisoners for a captured soldier. I and other critics predicted the terribole consequences at the time.

Yahya Sinwar | AP

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. (AP)


The horrific Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel revealed a variety of weaknesses in Israel’s security policies, and perhaps those of some other Western nations, too. But one that has not gotten as much attention as it deserves is the folly of hostage deals with terrorists. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, the likely mastermind of the recent attacks, was one of 1027 Palestinian terrorist prisoners released by Israel in 2011, in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. And one of Hamas’s motives for the attack was to use the captured hostages to secure the release of other Palestinian terrorists held by Israel. Indeed, Hamas leaders boast they now have enough hostages to force the release of all their own prisoners.

At the time of the 2011 agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was widely praised for demonstrating how much it values the lives of its people. I was one of the relatively few critics of the deal. Here’s the key part what I said:

I understand the emotional appeal of securing the release of a young soldier who has been in captivity since 2006. Nonetheless, the Israelis should have said “no.” Far from saving innocent life, the deal puts at risk many more innocents than it saves. It also incentivizes future acts of hostage-taking by Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Among the Hamas prisoners released in the deal are dozens who have committed brutal acts of terrorism against civilians in the past. If even a few of them commit further terrorist atrocities in the future, the resulting death toll is likely to far outweigh the benefit of saving Shalit. Moreover, such a lopsided deal (trading hundreds of hardened terrorists for an ordinary soldier) incentivizes future hostage-taking. Hamas officials have already said that the deal encourages them to kidnap more Israelis. If one hostage is worth 1000 prisoners, what can they get for two or three or ten? As one Hamas leader puts it, “[s]omeone who agrees to release 1,000 prisoners will agree to release 8,000 in the future…..”

Both the Israelis and other democratic states (including the US) have signed bad deals to get hostages back in the past, and such agreements have repeatedly backfired….

Shalit’s plight has been highly visible to the public for several years, and his friends and family have understandably been pressuring the Israeli government to secure his release at any price. By contrast, the identities of the future victims of the terrorists released in the deal, and the future hostages who will be taken as a result of it are as yet unknown. Because we don’t yet know who they are, the media can’t cover them and their relatives can’t lobby to protect them. It is a classic example of public opinion focusing on the seen while ignoring the unseen.

I don’t blame Shalit’s family and friends. Most other people in their position would feel the same way. But the Israeli government, like any government, has a broader duty to all of its citizens. It failed in that duty when it put numerous civilians at risk in order to secure the release of a single soldier.

While it seems I was right to predict that the deal would cost far more innocent lives than it saved, I had no idea of the enormous extent to which this has turned out to be true. With well over 1000 dead, the terrorist attack in which Sinwar played a key role is by far the worst in Israel’s history, and one of the worst in the entire history of the world. It is also the biggest anti-Semitic massacre since the Holocaust.

Some of my objections to the Shalit deal don’t apply to other exchanges. For example, I argued it was an inversion of moral priorities to endanger civilians in order to rescue a captured soldier. And most hostage deals with terrorists aren’t quite as lopsided as this one was.

But the basic logic is the same. Simple Economics 101 says you get more of the kinds of activities you reward. If you reward hostage-taking, you will predictably incentivize more hostage-taking. Plus, the terrorists you release are themselves likely to go out and commit more acts of terrorism—as Yahya Sinwar did.

I hope this time the lesson will finally be learned. But I fear it will not.

As in the case of Shalit, hostages currently held by terrorists are very visible to the public, and politicians like Bibi Netanyahu have strong incentives to listen to the anguished pleas of their family and friends. It seems cruel not to!

By contrast, we cannot and do not know the identities of the future hostages whose seizure we incentivize through our deal. Nor can we know the identities of future victims of terrorists released in the deal. In 2011, no one could know the identities of the future victims of Yahya Sinwar. Their families were in no position to lobby government officials to save them.

I realize that, even now, some will reject the above logic on the grounds that I can only say these things because it isn’t me or my family who are being held as hostages by Hamas. If it were, maybe I would think differently.

It may well be so. I have never had a friend or family member taken hostage and cannot know what I would do if I did. I have dealt with a number of death threats (most due to my advocacy of migration rights). I chose not to give in, in part because doing so would incentivize more such attempts at intimidation. But the small risk I took was utterly insignificant compared to that endured by hostages held by groups like Hamas.

Still, I would ask those inclined to give in to such emotional considerations to remember that the future hostages seized as a result of the deals we make today also have families who will suffer terrible anguish. The same goes for the families of future victims of terrorists released under those deals. We should strive to reduce the amount of such suffering, not increase it. And that means remembering Econ 101, and learning to say “no”—as the Israelis should have done in 2011.

I do not know if democratic governments are capable of credibly committing to such a policy. Short-term political considerations may well override it, as they did for Bibi Netanyahu in 2011, despite his own earlier criticism of less lopsided deals. One possible solution is to pass legislation barring such arrangements in advance, thereby tying officials’ hands. There may be other approaches. At the very least, we need more consideration of how to alter the perverse incentives of governments in this regard. If the problem remains unsolved, there will be more Yahya Sinwars..



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