Countries release prisoners under two scenarios: insignificant criminals through amnesty and POW’s after wars. Amnesty is much criticized because if a sentence term could be reduced, then the original long sentence was unjustified. Civilized countries have mostly switched to a parole system, and pardon criminals individually after elaborate investigations.

POW’s are generally exchanged after a war’s end, whether formally with a peace treaty or de facto with a conclusive armistice. Releasing them earlier brings hardened and hating fighters into the enemy’s ranks. Tactical POW exchanges sometimes take place after inconclusive battles for expediency’s sake, so that each side doesn’t have to maintain an approximately equivalent number of the enemy’s prisoners. Unable to maintain POW camps, armies shoot or starve prisoners. Unilateral POW releases never happen in wartime.

Is Israel at war with the Palestinians? Those in Israeli jails answer in the affirmative. Heroes at home, they won’t lead a pastoral life after release, but will involve themselves in the anti-Israeli struggle. By far most of the guerrillas Israel has released in earlier exchanges have joined the ranks of fighting organizations.

Some POW’s are never released, but held as trophies or hostages. Barghouti might not have been involved in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade attacks on Jews, and Israel could have sentenced him as a nod to Arafat, but now Barghouti is both a trophy prisoner and a valuable hostage, and must remain in jail. Israel needs the resolve to use its Arab hostages.

Some POW’s are sentenced for war crimes rather than repatriated after the war ends. Though most Palestinian insurgents in Israeli jails committed terrorist acts of war, several are guilty of war crimes, such as the deliberate murder of children.

Whether a prisoner release, euphemistically called an “exchange,” shows Israel goodwill or not is irrelevant. The Palestinian reaction to the ostensible goodwill is what matters. And they will recognize the swap as a hard-won concession, not goodwill. Arabs will be proud of their achievement and prompted to repeat the tactical victory. Swaps make Israelis into soft targets for hostage-taking by the Palestinians to press any of their demands. Swaps embolden guerrillas who are virtually assured of returning home after Israel catches them.

Disproportional prisoner swaps serve the government’s PR needs. Bringing back Cpl.Shalit is a PR achievement for Kadima, though worthless in military or security terms. The exchange values the media darling Shalit’s life on par with the hundreds of Jewish lives taken – and more yet to be taken – by the released terrorists. Shalit now becomes more important than scores of other Jews later. A publicized life costs many inconspicuous lives.

The exchange runs against the basic Jewish value of justice. Punishments must be meted out no matter what, on rich and poor alike, and certainly on enemies. Criminals should not be spared, even if Israel would enjoy flooding Palestine with Arab gangsters.
Judaism prescribed buying out kidnapped Jews in a different situation. Kidnappers profited in either case: sell the Jew back to his nation or sell him away as a slave. Then, a buyout did not prompt the kidnappers to more activity than they would otherwise undertake anyway. Today, kidnapping Israeli soldiers is unprofitable per se, and only a prisoners’ swaps make it profitable, thus provoking the kidnapping.

The Israeli problem of having too many prisoners reminds us of Biblical punishments. The ancient Jews had no concept of long-term incarceration. The idea of keeping criminals for years and decades on the public account was alien to their practical minds. Inflicting a bruise for a bruise might seem harsh to moralists, though many Jews would venture to carry out the punishments. Public lashing and execution remain meaningful options. The Torah unequivocally prescribes death for murderers: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen9:6). The commandment is not qualified by the aesthetics of execution, its expediency in solving crimes, or the morality of taking human lives. Execution is only about justice: justice to the victims and justice to the murderers. Errors happen, but in the worst case scenario Israel would execute a member of an enemy military group not directly involved in the murder of Jews. I can live with that. The Israeli government can live with that, too; it killed scores of innocent civilians in Lebanon and Gaza. And don’t start that “we-have-no-Sanhedrin” rant. Israeli courts sentence Jews to years in jail for killing Arabs in self-defense, and all the more so do they have the legal and moral jurisdiction to sentence Arabs to death for murdering Jews.

Once Israel stops taking prisoners, the issue of prisoners’ exchange will become moot.