Critics of Israel’s prisoner exchange with Lebanese guerrillas said that such deals only encourage more hostage-taking – a fear underscored by Gaza militants who said the swap proves that kidnapping is the only language Israel understands.
The deal, in which a notorious Lebanese attacker, four other militants and the bodies of 199 Arab fighters were traded for two dead Israeli soldiers, closed a painful chapter from Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.
It also raised questions about whether Israel should reconsider its policy of bringing back every soldier from the battlefield at just about any cost.
Israel has been carrying out unequal prisoner swaps for decades, including handing over 4,600 Palestinian and Lebanese captives in 1983 in exchange for six captured Israeli soldiers. In the past it has even traded live prisoners for bodies, as it did yesterday.
The rationale for such trades was a wartime ethic seen as essential in Israel’s early days to instilling loyalty and commitment from its troops.
In today’s world of asymmetric warfare – with militant groups increasingly focused on kidnapping as a way to pressure Israel – the swaps could have graver consequences than in the past.
“What we’ve done now has made kidnapping soldiers the most profitable game in town,” said Israeli security expert Martin Sherman.
“There is absolutely no reason why Hezbollah should not invest huge resources now, along with Hamas, in the next kidnapping.”
The issue is of immediate concern because the government is deeply involved in indirect negotiations to free its other captive soldier, Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Unlike Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two soldiers whose bodies were returned yesterday, Mr Schalit is believed to be alive.
Following this week’s Cabinet vote that cleared the way for the Hezbollah deal, Construction Minister Zeev Boim, one of only three ministers to vote against it, said he was afraid the swap would make it harder for Israel to win the release of Schalit.
“No one should be surprised if Hamas will now raise the price for freeing him,” he said.
Hamas made it clear that it intended to do just that.
“As there was an honourable exchange today, we are determined to have an honourable exchange for our own prisoners” held in Israeli jails, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said.
“Let them answer our demands.” Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in prison.