What is the State’s Obligation to Soldiers who have been Captured while Fulfilling their Duty?

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“People ask me how I survived for years in terrible conditions in Siberia. And I answer that I always believed that there was someone on the outside who was fighting to have me released. I saw every plane that passed overhead as a rescue plane sent by my country, the State of Israel, to free me from captivity.”

This story, told by Natan Sharansky in his meetings with young people, highlights an element currently absent from the public debate in Israel over the government’s policy toward those it sends into battle. Is a person held in captivity justified in thinking that his country will do everything it can to bring him home?"

In Israel, we are faced with the question of the state’s obligation to soldiers who have been captured while fulfilling their duty, and the related obligation to retrieving the remains of soldiers who have been killed that are still held by enemy forces.

Regarding fallen soldiers, my philosophy on this matter was shaped by the 69 victims of the Dakar submarine disaster, whose final resting place is, fittingly, at sea: we have a duty to honor their memory; we have a duty to furnish answers about the circumstances that led to their deaths; and we have a duty to learn from any mistakes that were made.

Still, I view the trading of the bodies of our men, as well as the bodies of our enemies, as disgraceful. The risk we must take to rescue a wounded soldier, or a soldier who has been captured, is not one we can take for the sake of the bodies of our fallen.

Meanwhile, the discussion about the state’s obligation to its soldiers who are being held in captivity is carried out against a backdrop of continuing violent conflicts with our enemies. As such, there are both moral and policy aspects to this debate.

The largely unspoken policy adopted by successive Israeli governments has been that if there is any realistic possibility to do so, we will dispatch forces to free our captive soldiers, despite the risk involved in military operations. However, if no such possibility exists, we will conduct negotiations that may involve paying a heavy price, both in terms of recognizing terrorist organizations de facto, and of releasing terrorists with blood on their hands to bring our captive soldiers home.

The debate about whether this policy is correct divides Israeli society. These divisions were amplified following the “Jibril deal” in 1985, in which Israel freed 1,150 terrorists in return for three IDF soldiers who had been captured.

Even 32 years ago, the government’s policy was already being influenced by public pressure. The government’s decision to refrain from negotiating over the release of Ron Arad when the possibility presented itself in 1986–87 was to a large degree due to concerns over public opinion, which was highly combustible following the Jibril deal.

But one question should underpin the entire debate: Does releasing hundreds of terrorists in return for a captive soldier mean surrendering to terror? Is it a sign of weakness, or rather an expression of the mutual responsibility that is the foundation of Israeli society’s resilience and power in its continuing struggle with terror?

In his “spider’s web” speech from May 2000, the day after the IDF withdrew from South Lebanon, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, painted the withdrawal as a surrender, and described Israeli society as weak:

“Israel has nuclear weapons and the strongest air force in the region, but Israeli society is weaker than a spider’s web,” Nasrallah said.

The speech, which was quoted in the Israeli media more than any other speech by an Arab leader, continues to influence Israeli discourse on the issue, and has been cited by those in Israel who see Israeli society as our Achilles’ heel in our current wars.

Senior military officers and political leaders reinforce this position with pronouncements such as “let the IDF win,” or, “the weakness of civilian society makes victory unattainable.”

I would like to present an alternative view, according to which Israeli society is in fact the source of Israel’s strength in its ongoing struggle with terror. The resilience of the State of Israel is based on the resilience of Israeli society and on the latter’s proven ability over the years to combine waging a long-term military struggle with building a state marked by outstanding accomplishments in the fields of science, education, society, and the economy. Second, in the ongoing war against terror, which cannot be decisively won, and which is being fought simultaneously on the military, home and international diplomacy fronts, it is the home front which is essential. The resilience and unity of society are keys to its ability to continue to successfully pursue this domestic struggle, and “mutual responsibility” is one of the cornerstones on which this resilience and unity are founded.

Mutual responsibility is the cornerstone on which the resilience of Israeli society is founded, and is most strongly expressed in the commitment of the government of Israel to do everything possible to secure the release of its captured soldiers. Israeli society is unified on this issue more than on any other, irrespective of socioeconomic strata or political views.

In today’s wars, the measure of our power is to be found internally, within civilian society, which bears most of the brunt of the continued fight against terror. Israeli society displays on a daily basis its vitality and ability to carry on creating and building, even in a reality of extended conflicts and security threats.

To a great degree, it may be that Nasrallah’s speech has helped us understand ourselves and the sources of our power. I presume that when he used the metaphor of a spider’s web, he was not aware that scientists have found that the threads of a spider’s web are stronger than any artificial fiber created by man, whether nylon, steel, or complex substances. Following this metaphor, it is the spider’s web that makes Israel’s resilience into the source of its great strength.

The correct policy must be to reinforce, not weaken, the source of our strength in this struggle.