It is certainly a major event for Sergeant Shalit, who had the misfortune to be taken prisoner by Hamas in Gaza five years ago; it is certainly a very important day for his family in Israel, who have spent five years worrying about him: worrying whether he was still alive, worrying whether they would ever see him again. And it is an important day for the Israeli government, who can at last draw a line under this episode, and who can think with satisfaction that they have got their man back. After all, that is the number one duty of all governments – to protect their citizens. The Israeli government, in making such efforts on behalf of Gilad Shalit, and paying so high a price for his release, has shown a Palmerstonian commitment to the welfare of its citizens.
There will, of course, be a great deal of debate about whether the Israelis were right to agree to swap Gilad Shalit for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. This deal raises the spectre of other Israeli citizens being kidnapped and then exchanged, now that the government of Israel has revealed the high value it places on a single sergeant. But to look at it that way obscures a simpler and more profound point.
Hamas has been content to hold Gilad Shalit for five years; we do not know in what sort of conditions as yet, but we do know that his imprisonment was not in accord with the Geneva convention. Shalit may have been taken in a war but the way he was held reminds us of the kidnapping of Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy. Just as we remember the long agony of that crisis, we ought to understand something of what the Israelis have been going through on behalf of Gilad Shalit. This shows that Hamas is quite prepared to use cruel methods to advance its cause, whatever that cause may be. Cruelty is surely never to be condoned. This behaviour of Hamas ought to chill the blood of all humane people.
I am not an apologist for Israel, and I deplore much of what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians, but in kidnapping Gilad Shalit and holding him for five years, Hamas have done the Palestinian cause no favours. Indeed they have done something wrong in itself, something inhumane, something to be condemned by all. By contrast, the Israelis, in caring about Shalit, in refusing to sacrifice him, and in releasing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners early, has shown a merciful face to the world.