"Prisoner Exchange in Jewish Law" Part 3

3. The Law Regarding Prisoners in Wartime

Though, as we have said, there are opinions that when the captive’s
life is at stake it is permissible to pay even more than the generally
accepted amount, in wartime it is forbidden to give in to any such
extortion whatsoever. The rule is that in times of war one does not
submit to any of the enemies demands. In fact, even in a case when the
enemy only stole some straw and hey from a border village, the
response must be a strong military one. For, as soon as one gives in
to them regarding a small matter, they will gain confidence and
increase their efforts to strike at us (see Eruvin 45a).

Therefore, if an enemy of Israel takes even a single hostage, we must
go to battle against them in order to save the captive, for if we
allow them to succeed in taking one hostage they will gain incentive
and step up their efforts to strike at us. To this effect we find in
the Torah (Numbers 21:1): “And when the Canaanites, the King of Arad,
who dwelt in the Negev, heard tell that Israel came by the way of
Atarim, he fought against Israel and took prisoner.” According to the
sages, they took only a single maidservant. Yet, in order to retrieve
her Israel did not suggest negotiations, but went to battle against
the Canaanites. An additional example can be brought from king David:
When the Amalekites attacked the town of Ziklag, taking the women
captive, David did not sit down at the negotiating table, but went to
war against them and saved the prisoners (Samuel 1:30).

In a case where Israel lacks the military capacity to engage the enemy
in battle it is permissible to exchange prisoners in the generally
accepted fashion, but any more than that is forbidden. This is all the
more true considering that we are today in an ongoing state of war
with surrounding countries and terrorist organizations and that every
concession is interpreted by them as an sign of weakness. Such
submission merely leads to more attacks and more attempts to take
hostages. What’s more, as a result of our willingness to free large
numbers of prisoners for one or two Israeli hostages, the terrorists
fear us less, for they figure that even if they do get caught, they
will most likely be freed before long in a prisoner exchange deal. It
should also be noted that many of the terrorists who have been
released by Israel in the past simply returned to their terrorist
activities, murdering, in turn, hundreds of Israelis. Hence, as a
result of our receiving one Israeli hostage, tens and perhaps even
hundreds of other innocent Israelis have been murdered.

It is important to realize, though, that at the end of the war, when a
final cease-fire agreement is reached between the sides, it is
permissible for Israel to release all of the enemy prisoners in its
possession in turn for all of our own captives being held by the enemy
– even if we have taken many captives. The reason for this is that
such exchanges are recognized as accepted practice at the end of the
war and are hence not considered acts of extortion. Unfortunately,
though, we do not foresee such an end to war and terrorism arriving
anytime in Israel’s near future.

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