“Hezbollah hand over the remains of two Israeli soldiers in a prisoner swap with Israel. Details soon.”
— CNN.com, 9:50am (ISR).
With a heavy heart, knowing what was about to happen and hoping that it wouldn’t, I woke up this morning and joined my roommate at our “laptop table,” our backs to the TV, listening with half an ear to the “prisoner swap” with Hizbullah. The event turned out like no one hoped and everyone probably expected, with Israel trading five live “freedom fighters” and the remains of 199 Lebanese militia for the remains of two soldiers. It sounds like some ridiculous sale at Supersol: pay 2 and get 5+199. What a deal.
The inequality of the trade is stark. The power position was Hizbullah’s–we know what we have, and you don’t, but you trade your known quantity for our unknown quantity, and no, you don’t get to know what we have before you agree–and Israel…well, Israel calls in the forensic scientists to figure out if we’re really getting back what we think we’re getting back. It’s all theoretical until DNA proves otherwise.
Even before we see Channel 10’s split-screen coverage–one half of the screen devoted to replaying the footage of the two black coffins being laid on the ground, and the other half filled with the faces of the family–our collective heart goes out to the families. For the friends and families, this marks a terrible closure as they gathered to learn the fates of the soldiers, who have been missing since their capture two years ago.
But now begins the process for the Israeli imagination, of understanding what happened to them. Were they captured and killed instantly, with an eye toward using them for bargaining chips and exploiting Israel’s premium on human life? Was there a process of torture, either violent or insidious (malnutrition)? Has Hizbullah (or other terrorist organizations) ever returned Israeli soldiers alive? Or the most horrifying prospect: is it possible that they were alive until the prisoner swap was announced and then killed?
Plus, for non-native English speakers who rely on a combination of TV images and online English reports, there’s much opportunity for confusion as to what is actually happening. The footage of the two black boxes, next to each other evoking the image of two fallen towers that is still active in my bi-national memory, replays and we understand, much like we did with those towers, that the image happened once and was now being repeated. But that doesn’t stop the emotional impact of seeing the image. Stab, stab, stab. Each time hurts.
But when footage of caravans of glass-walled trucks, bearing coffins decorated with the flag of Lebanon, make their way through crowded Lebanese streets, seemingly the freedom fighters’ remains, even while CNN reports that Israel will keep their end of the deal only if forensics reports ascertain that the remains in the two boxes are Goldwasser and Regev–there’s a dawning awareness: we see what the media wants us to see, and we really don’t know what we’re looking at.
Israel as a nation lived the capture of the soldiers, with banners flying from apartments and in front of businesses, urging vigilance on behalf of the kidnapped soldiers. As late as yesterday, I saw one that read, “Don’t let apathy kill our sons.” It struck me because it seemed so opposite the national sentiment; you didn’t have to say “don’t be apathetic,” or “never forget,” because remembering national service is a daily occurrence. I don’t know a single Israeli (or even an oleh from the Diaspora) who didn’t remember these soldiers in an active sense. Apathy, as an entity, is not what killed Goldwasser and Regev. In this region, there are many enemies, and although it’s metaphorically tempting to cast apathy in an equivalent role, such symbolic casting misses the point.
Israeli families know the risks of living here, but accepting it in the abstract is very different from living it on a national level. To live it means that in every negotiation, you are setting the precedent for the future. If two presumed-dead soldiers are worth X, then what is one living one worth? We know the rabbinic opinion, that one person’s life is worth worlds, that “bloods” cry out from the ground, symbolizing not just the one life, but countless other lives that that person may have birthed or inspired.
There’s something powerful to the hardline of “we will not negotiate with terrorists.” But Israel does, not just as political entity, but as a country where the heartbeat of its very life comprises the heartbeats of many soldiers and civilians. Say what you want about the rising oil prices, or corruption in some of the high government offices–Israel the country feels a responsibility to each of those heartbeats.