Freeing Abductees: Moral Guidelines

The Way to Free the Abductees: Moral and National Guidelines

The goal of the war should be victory and the defeat of the enemy, along with ensuring the nation's security in the future. The national goal prevails over private considerations. Just as this is true of a soldier in combat mode, so is it true of a prisoner. Rabbi Tamir Granot on ethical aspects of the return of the abductees.

(Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash 90)

The Simchat Torah War - Swords of Iron: basic guidelines of the ethics of the liberation of the abductees held by Hamas.

The essence of the principles

1. The release of the captives in Operation Swords of Iron is a national task, imposed on all of us together. Not only of the families, nor only of the state or the army.

We are all - the families! We must treat the challenge of freeing the captives as if our children or parents were actually there. The captives are the captives of the entire nation.

2. The release of the abductees is a central goal of the war, second only to victory, which will include the destruction of the Hamas army and a fundamental change in the security situation, which will allow the Western Negev to rise in security and peace.

3. The first priority is that the release of the hostages be achieved by a military operation or by the surrender of the enemy.

4. As a second priority, condition any humanitarian gesture, truce, return to homes or any other benefit to the residents of Gaza - on the release of all the abductees. The residents of Israel - old men and tender children, girls and boys, were abandoned to the cruelty of the Hamas killers. The state's responsibility to its citizens requires that the residents of Gaza remain destitute refugees, as long as our soldiers and citizens are held captive by them.

5. Do not distinguish between different people's blood. As far as things depend on us, all the abductees have equal status and the goal is to free them all. As long as there is a possibility of partial release that does not depend on us, it should be promoted and only practical considerations should be considered.

6. An agreement to exchange prisoners is a last resort, and to be done only when we are left with no choice, and it must not in any way give Hamas an image of victory. Without a choice, such an agreement would be moral and reasonable under two conditions:

  • The qualitative and quantitative quantity of terrorists will be in accordance with the quantity and quality of our abductees, as is customary in agreements of this type in the world,
  • The conditions of release will not allow terrorists to return to terrorist activity.

7. The release of the abductees is a common national goal of all the people of Israel. We should not take advantage of the difficult situation to achieve other political or ideological achievements, and it is important to maintain the unity of the families and to convey uniform messages, for the success of the struggle.

8. The cessation of hostilities, even after the subjugation of Hamas, without the release of the hostages, will not be considered a victory.

9. The people will give the government all the backing to continue the fighting, despite the ongoing damage and suffering, until the hostages are released.

Assumptions and introductions

  • The discussion of the issue must be held in the light of the Jewish tradition and Halacha and in the light of the principles of morality in three circles:
  • Redemption of captives captured on personal grounds, in normal times - is discussed a lot in the Talmud and the halachic tradition.
  • Redemption of prisoners during wartime - a relatively new phenomenon known to us mainly since the establishment of the state.
  • The release of the abductees in the current war - some of its characteristics are fundamentally different from other wars.
  • The mitzvah/value of redeeming captives is a very important mitzvah, according to the Rambam:

Redeeming captives precedes providing for the poor, and there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming captives, since the captive is generally the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and is in danger of their lives, and those who ignore the mitzvah, this violates:

לא תאמץ את לבבך… ועל לא תעמוד על דם רעך …. ובטל מצוות … ואהבת לרעך כמוך, …. ואין לך מצוה רבה כפדיון שבויים. (רמב"ם הלכות מתנות עניים פרק ח הלכה י)

(you shall not be harsh... and thou shalt not stand on the blood of thy neighbor... and undo commandments... and love your neighbor as yourself,... And you don't have a mitzvah as great as redeeming captives. (Rambam Laws of Gifts for the Poor, Chapter 8, Halacha 10))

The reasons are both the denial of freedom and the prevention of suffering in captivity, as well as the supervision of souls, and the abductees in our time are all in a state of danger to their souls.

Before we get into the complex aspects of the issue and the dilemmas it raises, we will propose three courses of action that every Jewish person should undertake, to the best of his ability:

  • Support for the families of the abductees. Moral and practical support - go visit, encourage, offer help, express partnership.
  • Do not forget, do not remove from the heart. - to pray for them in every prayer: "Our brothers, the whole house of Israel, etc.," to say the special 'Mi Sheberach' for the captives, to add chapters of the Psalms, to hold prayer meetings, to light candles, each according to his own way and faith.
  • Media and global public opinion - everyone will help to the extent of their ability to the international awareness of the issue and not taking it off the agenda in social networks and electronic means, and creating public opinion sympathetic to our strategy.
  • There is no mitzvah and no value that does not have a limit and a measure - including the redemption of captives. Hence, the statement that is often heard by the leaders of the state and the army: "We will do everything to free the abductees", although it is true in terms of our desire and ambition, it is not accurate from a moral and halachic point of view, and sends a negative message to the enemy.

Instead, it should be said: "We will not rest nor be quiet until we free our captives," without implying a price.

  • The Sages said in the Mishnah,

"שאין פודים אם החטופים יותר מכדי דמיהם מפני תיקון העולם"

and the original meaning is that if too much money is paid, it will create motivation for the kidnappers to seize others in the future, and will also increase the price of the future redemption - and these two considerations are still true today.

  • The current challenge of about 240 civilians and soldiers kidnapped by Hamas is fundamentally different from the classic wish to redeem the kidnapped:
  • The redemption of the kidnapped nowadays, unlike the halachic issue, is the state's responsibility and role, as part of its duty to its soldiers and citizens.
  • The enemy's success in kidnapping so many people is the result of a complete failure of the state and the army to protect its citizens and soldiers, while creating an illusion, of course without malicious intent, that it is protecting them. This relationship imposes on the state a higher and absolute obligation of responsibility, since the state of captivity was caused by the state's negligence.
  • The required return is not money but the release of terrorists, and this is of course much more serious, since the release of terrorists creates a real future danger for many lives in Israel.
  • The captivity is part of the war, and not an event in the course of normal life. That is why it should be treated within the framework of war management and the ethics of war, and not as a private problem of suffering or one's life being at risk.

The principles

1. The goal of war should be victory and the defeat of the enemy, along with ensuring the nation's security in the future. In war, the national consideration will always stand above the private consideration. In the case of the current war: the goal is the defeat of Hamas and the elimination of its military capabilities and the creation of a security and political situation different from the root that will allow a return to the Western Negev without fear, without the need for protection and under conditions of absolute existential security, for generations. That's what the soldiers fight for and that's what they give their lives for.

The national goal prevails over the private consideration. Just as this is true of a soldier in combat mode, so it is true of a captive.

2. The rule regarding those kidnapped in war are as of any soldier or citizen whose life is in danger, and part of the duty of the mutual guarantee in war is to try to save him, as much as possible, without the fighting itself being significantly harmed. That is: it is mandatory to risk the lives of soldiers for the purpose of rescuing prisoners and returning them to their homes, because they are in a state of risk to their lives. This duty is a derivative of the moral responsibility towards every soldier or citizen during the war, and is a central element in the morale of the army and the people when everyone knows that they will not be abandoned during battle.

3. The actions taken to save captives will be weighed in a similar way to the actions taken to save the life of a soldier or civilian, during war. For example: a tactical action that has a risk of harming soldiers will be weighed in terms of possible profit and loss: how many prisoners can be saved, how many soldiers may be harmed, what is the level of risk, etc. Moreover: it will be examined whether the rescue operation may damage the war strategy and its goals. On the other hand, actions taken to harm the enemy, and vital to the war, which have a possible risk to our captives, will be weighed just as a possible cost to the lives of soldiers is weighed.

4. The success of Hamas terrorists in kidnapping about 240 soldiers and civilians on Simchat Torah is a serious failure of the state and the army, and a failure to meet the basic responsibility of the state towards its citizens. It means a serious crisis of confidence.

5. In addition to this, the enemy's success in taking about 240 captives is a central element of his strategy, and a distinct image of his victory.

Therefore, in addition to the above-mentioned considerations that were correct at other times, in the current war the release of the abductees must be regarded not only as a moral obligation, but as one of the goals of the war and as a condition for defining victory in the war, a goal that is second only to the defeat of Hamas and the elimination of its leaders and army. A scenario of Hamas surrendering while the abductees remain in its hands, may be a mock victory, in their minds and ours.

6. Hence, the leadership of the IDF and the state should strive for one of two achievements: the release of the abductees through military action, or a surrender agreement that includes their release, during the fighting or at the end.

In light of this, we should not declare victory in the war or its end, as long as the abductees are not released. Both because it is a political mistake, and also because it would be an embezzlement of the national and moral responsibility towards the abductees.

7. If the tactical/strategic conditions require the end of the war operations, and do not allow the release of the abductees, there must be no humanitarian relief or the beginning of a process of return to life or rehabilitation of Arab Gaza, without the release of the abductees. As long as our captives are kept with them, the citizens there will be in a state of escape and persecution.

Prisoner exchange agreement

In the event that neither of these two achievements is achieved, and the question of a prisoner release agreement arises, we must follow the following rules:

  • First, the leaders of the country and the heads of the army must stop using the accepted statement: "We will do everything to free our captives", whose purpose is to reassure the families, because the enemy interprets this in terms of negotiations as a willingness to pay the maximum price. There is great security damage in this, and also because it is morally correct to "put in every effort", but not to "do everything". The responsibility of not offering "everything" in advance rests first and foremost on the government, but it is appropriate and correct that the families and close associates should also behave this way, because public pressure to pay a high price and release many terrorists acts as a boomerang, greatly reducing the chance of a proper deal, and alternatively greatly increasing the price of a prisoner deal, and both results are negative.

We and the country's leaders must declare: "We will not rest or be silent until the abductees return home." And the government must make a commitment to the citizens and families: "We will not end the fighting, and we will not give any relief or tribute to the residents of Gaza, until the issue of the release of the abductees is resolved."

This should also be the confident and proud message that the people should convey to their leaders, and this should be the purpose of the campaign to free the abductees. We do not want a convenient ceasefire while our brothers suffer in captivity. We are willing to suffer until they are released.

  • The main effort, as mentioned above, should be the release of the kidnapped as part of the fighting and victory. As much as it may not turn out well, God forbid, an agreement for their release should be one that meets two conditions: the first, that public safety will not be harmed in the future. The wholesale release of terrorists endangers public life and perpetuates the cycle of terrorism, and is therefore prohibited and morally or politically wrong. Such a negative example is the Shalit deal, the fruits of which we have been eating for years in murderous attacks, until the terrible massacre that happened on Simchat Torah. The second condition is that the agreement will not arouse appetite for further actions in the future, that is, that the enemy will be convinced that it is not worthwhile for him to do so. Both of these conditions require limiting the number of those released, and their release under such conditions that they can no longer endanger public safety. Without them, the agreement would be dangerous and morally wrong.
  • As mentioned, the enemy's success in taking many prisoners is a key element in his victory in public consciousness. Agreeing to the wholesale release of terrorists out of proportion to the number of abductees, would be a dangerous image of victory for him, despite the significant damage to the enemy and his infrastructure. Hence, it is forbidden in any way to reach such an agreement where the release of the abductees would be a clear achievement for the enemy, neither in terms of the number of terrorists released nor in terms of their status.
  • To sharpen this point we must think in the following terms. This is not an exchange of prisoners from army to army, etc., which are logical and do not put the country at risk. A prisoner exchange with Hamas means the release of terrorists whose direct motivation is to kill Jews. Since we must ask the question as if we ourselves were family members of the abductees, let us ask it this way, for illustration:

If they offer the leaders of Hamas in Gaza 5,000 precision missiles, which in the future will hit 5,000 of our Jewish brothers, women and children and cause their death within ten years, and in exchange for this all the abductees will be released. Will we: father, mother, son or daughter of abductees - be ready for such a deal? As a matter of fact, we clearly know today that the wholesale release of Hamas terrorists, this is what it means. There is no doubt that every member of the families of the abductees, and every one of us, even if we have a father, mother, brother, sister, etc., held captive by Hamas, would reject such an offer completely. How can I determine that the blood of my children is redder than the blood of other children who will die if the deal goes through?

Missing persons and corpses

  • Missing persons: To the extent that there is no certain information regarding the condition of a soldier or civilian, and there is a chance that he is alive, then saving a life which is at risk applies, and one must act according to the above principles, as if he were a prisoner, in order to receive information, or to rescue him from captivity.
  • Dead bodies of soldiers or victims of terrorism. The mitzvah of burying the dead, and certainly an IDF casualty or a person who was injured in a terrorist act, is an important mitzvah. However, it in no way has the status of a life at risk, and it does not have the supreme importance of the mitzvah of redeeming prisoners. Hence, a soldier or a civilian whose death is determined with certainty, and his body is possibly held by the enemy, it is forbidden to risk the lives of soldiers in order to obtain his body. it is forbidden in any way to take any future risk, nor to create the impression with the enemy that the capture of corpses costs us the release of terrorists. Therefore, we must not release even one living terrorist in exchange for a body. Obtaining corpses should be carried out in exchange for the return of bodies, or as a side effect of a general agreement for the redemption of prisoners or surrender, and not have a price in itself.

We will pray for the victory of the people of Israel and for the safe return of all our captives home. We will unite around the holy cause, strengthen the families, and use sensitivity, patience and bravery. "Brothers, all the House of Israel who are in trouble and in their captivity, God will have mercy on them and bring them out of trouble to prosperity and darkness to light and slavery to redemption - now, in the near future."


Rabbi Tamir Granot is the head of Yeshiva Orot Shaul in Tel Aviv.


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