Forget the oft-bandied stereotype that Jews are miserly. When it comes to paying a price for its soldiers, the Jewish state has proven that it is willing to pay, big. And this is something her enemies know well.
There is a children's story from Israel called “When the shark and the fish first met”.
“A small and gentle fish was swimming in the middle of a peaceful ocean. All of a sudden, the fish saw a shark that wanted to devour him.
He then began to swim very quickly, but so did the shark.
Suddenly the fish stopped and called to the shark:
'Why do you want to devour me? We can play together!'
The shark thought and thought and said:
'Okay- fine: Let’s play hide and seek.'”
According to the story, when the fish and the shark went home that night, their mothers asked what they each did. Then, the fish and the shark were properly instructed: The shark should not play with its food. As for the fish, it learnt that sharks had eaten its brother and father, and were clearly not choice playmates either.
This was a story submitted by Gilad Shalit, when he was in the fifth-grade. A bright student, he graduated with honours from high school and in July 2005, entered compulsory military service like all Israelis his age.
Less than a year later, he was kidnapped by Hamas, and remains in captivity today.
For more than three years now, neither his family or NGOs like the International Red Cross have been allowed to see him. Hamas have refused to pass on any holiday gifts as well, in case the Israelis try to track him. That is, till now.
... for Israelis, a nation with a conscript army, a soldier is someone especially close. The captured Gilad Shalit could easily have been one of their sons, brothers, daughters or sisters.
During the Day of Atonement holidays this last September, Hamas agreed to pass along a prayer book inscribed by the spiritual leader of Shas, Israel's main religious political party. In return, the Palestinian group also handed over a video in which a well-looking Shalit spoke about his dream of being released.
There had been sporadic letters, but this was the first time his family and friends have seen and heard from him in three years.
All this had not come without a cost to Israel. To get that tape, Israel had to hand over 20 female Palestinian prisoners. As for freeing Shalit himself, Hamas demanded – among other conditions – the release of 1,000 Palestinians now held in Israeli jails.
This is the price set by Hamas on their own people's lives: One Israeli soldier for 1,000 Palestinians.
Yes, an Israeli is worth heaps in Gaza. Israel knows that and so do the Palestinians. They also know that as a nation, Israelis are willing to pay the price.
CAPTURED ISRAELI SOLDIER WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE
Samir Kuntar was a Palestinian convicted of killing an Israeli father in front of his 4-year-old daughter before murdering her as well. In 2008, he was released, in exchange for two IDF reservists abducted by Hezbollah in 2006.
Israel agreed, though Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had already been killed and it would only be getting their bodies.
Being killed or captured is a hazard that comes with the job of a soldier. But for Israelis, a nation with a conscript army, a soldier is someone especially close. The captured Gilad Shalit could easily have been one of their sons, brothers, daughters or sisters.
On the third anniversary of Shalit's capture this year, thousands gathered at Jerusalem's Western Wall to pray for his release.
On the social networking site Facebook, there are over 80,000 members on each of the two “Free Gilad Shalit” groups.
A one-day internet campaign on Twitter got such an overwhelming response that Shalit's name became the second most popular phrase included in all tweet messages sent for the whole day.
Israelis want Shalit back. What they differ on is the exchange rate which has been set by Hamas.
According to a poll, 69% are willing to release terrorists who have killed Israelis in order to get Shalit back. At the height of the Gaza War, 76% said they would not support a ceasefire with Hamas, if Shalit was not released.
Yes, most Israelis concede that they have to pay a price to get Shalit back, even if it means releasing Palestinian prisoners convicted of terrorism against their people. But for a minority, that is a rate too high.
SHALIT'S RELEASE, AT WHAT PRICE?
Hamas has ominously warned that as long as Palestinians were “imprisoned in Israel, this will encourage everybody to make use of methods like kidnapping.”
"We should not release more than one prisoner for one of our soldiers," said the leader of the right-wing group, Legal Forum for the Land of Israel.
"A government of true leadership should look beyond the eyes of the Shalit family and into the eyes of the families of victims of future kidnappings, which the deal will sadly encourage."
This is the debate in Israel, and one that will wage on. Hamas has ominously warned that as long as Palestinians were “imprisoned in Israel, this will encourage everybody to make use of methods like kidnapping.”
In the 61 years of the IDF, abduction of Israel's soldiers has been rare. Currently there are seven Israeli soldiers abducted or are missing in action, and Israel is determined they do not end up like Nachshon Wachsman .
Hamas kidnapped the then 19-year-old Waschman in 1994, and threatened to kill him, if Israel did not release the group's detained spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin.
Yasser Arafat himself called the Wachsmans to promise he would do everything to secure his return. As the country waited, they sent the Waschmans over 30,000 letters. Thousands of Jewish women who never lit Sabbath candles did it for Nachshon. 24 hours before the deadline, prayer vigils took place all over Israel. At the Western Wall alone, over 100,000 turned up.
In the end, an IDF rescue attempt failed and Wachsman died. Yassin was eventually freed, in exchange for two agents from the Israeli intelligence service Mossad who had been captured by Jordan. Yassin himself paid the blood debt ten years later, assassinated by Israel.
The story Shalit wrote had a happy ending.
The shark and the fish didn't meet for days, weeks and months. Then after a year, they bumped into each other.
“ ...then the shark said: 'You are my enemy, but maybe we can make peace?'
The little fish said: 'Okay.'
They played secretly for days, weeks and months, until one day the shark and fish went to the fish’s mother and spoke together with her. Then they did the same thing with the shark’s mother; and from that same day the sharks and the fish lived in peace.”
Peace may be a bit too much to hope for between Israel and Hamas right now, but at least they have achieved a breakthrough in their negotiations brokered by Egypt and Germany. In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Hamas leader said Shalit's release is “a question of weeks, maximum a few months.”
If that is true and Shalit is released, what then happens after that? Will more Israeli soldiers be kidnapped?
The Israeli Defense Force went the distance to prevent this during its military operation into Gaza last December, but it is a strategy too good to give up. Even if Hamas – now a legitimate political party in Gaza – does denounce it as a tactic, other splinter Palestinian militant groups are more than willing to take it up.
This is the Achilles' heel of the Israelis. For as long as the conflict continues, it is a cost they will always have to bear.
And it is a ransom Israel's enemies will find it easy to exact.