Discounted: The prisoner dilemma

Dammit. Another black day for racists everywhere. Well, not a black day, I suppose I can’t say that. Another non-white day for racists everywhere.

It was bad enough when those Americans got a capable black president, but now another hoary old racist myth has been destroyed. Apparently, Jews aren’t actually avaricious natural businessmen always getting the best of any business deals.

I mean, come on. One Israeli exchanged for one thousand Palestinians? What kind of a deal is that? Having spent an instructive week in Jerusalem once, I feel I am entirely capable of pronouncing on the different levels of salesmanship of the different religious quarters in that fine old city. I’m not going to tell you who was the most persistent, because that would just be perpetuating bigoted stereotypes, but I’ll tell you how you measured them.

In an elaborate and rare prisoner exchange Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held for more than five years by the militant Palestinian group Hamas, was swapped on Tuesday for hundreds of Palestinians who have spent many years in Israeli jails.

In the one quarter, the traders would follow after you for twenty minutes, with the price eventually moving from the outrageous to the merely exploitative. From another quarter, you’d wake up the next morning, and there’d be this guy lying next to you, staring soulfully into your eyes and offering you one last, final discount. Commitment, people! It’s what made Steve Jobs great.

Oh, wait! In a truly South African moment, I have moved on from stereotyping a race, culture or people, and appear to be stereotyping an entire region. Is that progress, or is that a regression? I can imagine that a world where everyone is oppressed equally is better than one where some are haves and some are have-nots. But perhaps that’s a Utopian dream, a vision of a time when all men/women are born equal, but actually everyone is as unequal as the other.

I can just imagine the negotiations between Israel and Hamas. They probably started out with one Shalit for ten thousand Palestinians. There was much talk about the relative quality of the merchandise (yes, but your guy’s one of the Chosen People. Ours are just simple terrorists, each worth maybe a 10 000th of yours, right? This is a good deal, I’m practically setting off my own suicide bomb here). And finally, Netanyahu managed to talk them down to a 1000-1, thinking he’d played hardball.

But jokes aside, and especially ones as bad as that – there must be some uneasiness in the Middle East about the terms of this new economy.

The start of this New York Times story is indicative: “Just off the bus in Gaza after six years in an Israeli prison, one of hundreds traded to Hamas for an Israeli soldier, Wafa al-Bass declared her next goal: Abduct more Israeli soldiers.” It’s a sellers market, clearly. Al-Bass, by the way, was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 2005 after she tried to kill Israeli soldiers and herself at a Gaza border crossing by detonating a bomb.

A week ago, I’d have been making these pronouncements a little more blithely. But having just spent a few days with an Israeli in Vienna (and for obvious historical reasons, being in Vienna does kind of sharpen your empathy for all sides in the Middle East conflict), I’m willing to admit that I have no real idea of the complexities of the situation.


So I’m not taking sides here, but the general consensus seems to be that no greater good can come from the unequal prisoner exchange. The moderates in Palestine are left staring into the Abbas, and the hardliners appear to be strengthened.

And while the casual observer might feel happy for the families now reunited (although the Western media, largely, seems to be focussing on the Shalit family, for the obvious reasons), many commentators have warned that there could be some unfortunate consequences for other families down the line.

And that’s, as usual, on all sides of the conflict.

Chris Roper is the editor of M&G online. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroperza

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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