Prisoner Inflation

Israel traded 1,000 Palestinians for one soldier. Is that the going rate?

Israeli army Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19.

Photograph by Shalit family via Getty Images.

Israel announced a deal this week to bring home soldier Gilad Shalit, taken hostage by Hamas militants in 2006. In exchange, the country will free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. On a per-Israeli basis, that’s more than double what was paid in a famous 1985 swap, when Israel traded 1,150 security prisoners for three soldiers captured in the first Lebanon War. What’s the going exchange rate for Israelis?

About 350-to-1. While each deal to free political or military hostages arises from a unique set of circumstances, this week’s trade of 1,027 for one is unusually lopsided. According to Reuters, Israel has released an estimated 7,000 Palestinians and other Arab prisoners over the past three decades in exchange for the freedom of 16 Israelis. That puts the average exchange rate at about 438 Arabs for each one, or 269 Arabs each if you include the 10 corpses that were also returned in prisoner swaps. The Jibril Agreement of 1985, mentioned above, implied a valuation of 383 Arabs to the Israeli. A more complex deal in 2004 saw one living former Israeli colonel and three dead soldiers change hands for 400 Palestinian prisoners, 35 prisoners of various other nationalities, and the remains of 59 Lebanese fighters and civilians.

Elsewhere in the world, such deals tend to be less lopsided, for a variety of reasons. The United States generally refuses to negotiate with groups that take hostages, preferring to recoup its citizens by force. In the Iran hostage crisis, for instance, President Jimmy Carter declined to hand over the deposed Shah in exchange for the release of 52 American citizens. Instead, he imposed sanctions and eventually launched a helicopter rescue mission that failed disastrously. The hostages were finally returned in an Algeria-brokered agreement after the Shah had died and Reagan had replaced Carter in office. When Somali pirates captured an American ship captain in 2009 and demanded a $2 million ransom, President Obama sent in a team of Navy snipers, who ended up killing three pirates and rescuing the hostage. Other countries and private entities have been willing to pay cash in order to avoid bloodshed.

In traditional military conflicts, swaps are rare. The Geneva Conventions allow both sides to hold prisoners of war until hostilities cease, at which point they are required to release them all. Prisoners may also be turned over unilaterally for humanitarian reasons. In the Cold War, however, there were several spy swaps between the United States and the Soviet Union. The trades were often one-to-one, but not always. Two years after the Soviets shot down a CIA pilot in a U2 spy plane over central Russia, they released him, along with an American student, in exchange for a single Soviet KGB colonel. In 2010, the United States turned over 10 Russian sleeper spies in exchange for four alleged Western double agents.

The numbers in such exchanges vary because prisoners, unlike money, usually aren’t a fungible commodity—some are worth more to their governments than others. The Colombian rebel group FARC offered most of its hostages for ransom but held back about 40, whom it deemed “exchangeables,” redeemable only with the release of some 500 imprisoned FARC members. That’s an exchange rate of 12.5 to 1. The government has generally refused to trade, however, instead rescuing some of the hostages in military raids.

So why were the Palestinians able to charge the Israelis so much for Gilad Shalit’s release? Supply and demand. Israel has vast numbers of Palestinian prisoners, most of whom are relative unknowns in their home country. But the capture of a single Israeli soldier makes big news, and the Israeli government has shown a willingness to pay dearly for its citizens’ freedom. While both sides celebrated news of the Shalit deal, there are signs that some in Israel are beginning to question whether prisoner inflation has gone too far.

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Explainer thanks Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame Law School.