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Mixed Feelings at a Homecoming

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

After five years in lonely captivity, denied visits by the Red Cross let alone his countrymen and kin, there was Gilad Shalit back on native soil.

In his fresh uniform, web belt around his shrunken waist, regulation headgear tucked under a shoulder strap, and looking shrunken in his outsized uniform, Sgt. Shalit was saluting the high-ranking (and well-fed) politicians who are attracted to such occasions -- like moths to even a flickering flame.

Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists -- excuse me, militants -- in June of 2006. Frail, wan, pale, the returnee looked a little like those pictures of newly liberated GIs freed at last from Japan's ghastly prison/death camps circa 1945. Those who had survived, that is.

Recall how painfully thin Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, U.S.A., appeared when he finally got out of some hole of a Japanese prison camp in Manchuria/Manchukuo? Unlike his commander -- Douglas MacArthur had chosen to lead his troops from sunny Australia -- General Wainwright chose to go into captivity with his men after Corregidor.

They'd called him Skinny Wainwright even before the war, and the man was a lot skinnier afterward. He seemed only a shadow of his old self when he was immediately flown to the Philippines to receive the surrender of the last Japanese forces there.

Sergeant Shalit did not surrender to overwhelming numbers. Instead, he was taken hostage in a cross-border raid and now has returned after years of isolation, negotiation and general hand-wringing in Israel. He was being exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, child-killers, arsonists and not very pleasant types in general. Most of them scrupulously avoided military targets. Their specialty was innocent civilians. Less trouble that way.

Now this once young sergeant is being welcomed home by his family, which in Israel means the whole country. For it's a small, tightly knit state/community/clan that's been through a lot together. In that country, if somebody in the news isn't your cousin, surely you went to school or through the army together. It sounds a little like life here in Arkansas.

And like some small towns I've known, everybody has an opinion about just how you should conduct your business -- and doesn't hesitate to voice it.

His country is still divided over the wisdom of ransoming Gilad Shalit, for the odds are that freeing all these killers as part of the bargain will only assure more killings to come.

Gilad Shalit will have been rescued at the price of many more Gilad Shalits in the future now that the price for one Sergeant Shalit has been established: 1,027 terrorists. Payable on demand.

Even as the Palestinian prisoners were being released to jubilant cheers in the Gaza Strip, aka Hamasland, the mobs were chanting: "The people want a new Gilad!"

Odds are they'll get one to exchange. Dead or alive, for the Israelis, like the Marines, have this thing about reclaiming their dead, too.

Whether it's the Reagan administration sending arms to Iran or Benjamin Netanyahu's releasing a thousand and more terrorists from Israeli prisons, the old slogan about "No negotiations with terrorists!" has proven hollow once again.

In Israel, one needn't go into detail about terror and its cost. One word, one name of a bombed-out pizza parlor, nightclub or hotel is enough to bring back the whole bloody scene. Sbarro, Hillel, the Dolphinarium, Matza, Maxim, the Park Hotel. ... Bar Mitzvahs, Passover seders, ice cream parlors, bus stops, no civilian target was immune. The purpose of terror, as Comrade Lenin once explained, is to terrorize. Nothing more. Or less.

Not till the Israelis erected their fence -- uh, security barrier -- did the killings abate. Even mentioning the number of a bus that was blown apart -- Egged 16, 37, 5 -- will bring back images of the blood and gore, and the men in black hats and long beards who make it their business to pick up every severed limb or piece of flesh at the scene in order to observe the commandment about giving the dead a decent burial.

Whatever the Israelis' misgivings about the deal that freed Sergeant Shalit, another commandment -- a product of the long and painful history of this people -- took precedence over every other consideration, including the simple common sense of never negotiating with terrorists. You shall ransom the captive.

It may be only a matter of time before the real price of this one Israeli soldier's release will be known. Those who go out rejoicing at Gilad Shalit's release may return soon enough weeping over the next Gilad's seizure. Or death.

In other lopsided exchanges, the Israelis have exchanged hundreds of prisoners for the corpse of one of their boys. Nice people they're dealing with. But deal they will, which may be why there will be more captives on the market. Call it the cost of belonging to a people who have been told to choose life.

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