Israel and Hamas agree deal to free Gilad Shalit

Everything you need to know about the prisoner swap deal and how it was reached.

Hamas and Israeli officials have agreed a prisoner swap deal which will see the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held captive in the Gaza Strip for five years. In return, Israel will release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

The background

Shalit, aged just 19, was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 after Palestinian militants entered Israel and dragged him into Gaza. Since then, little has been known of his well-being. His father, Noam Shalit, has tirelessly campaigned for his son's release.

Those who have suffered the most from Shalit's capture are the people of Gaza. Israel has staged a series of deadly raids, including 2006's Operation Summer Rains, which left more than 400 Palestinians dead.

Crucially, his on-going capture has been a central justification for Israel's five-year blockade of Gaza. This has seen the import and export of basic food and medical supplies severely limited, and the movement of people restricted. Last year, David Cameron described Gaza as a "prison camp".

The deal

Shalit is expected to be home in the next 48 hours. In return, 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will be freed. This includes 15 high security inmates said to have had direct involvement in terror attacks, and 200 who will not be permitted to return to the West Bank. About half of those who do return will face restrictions on their movement. The deal also guarantees the release of six Israeli Arabs to their homes, and of 27 female inmates.

It has been reported that the deal will see the prisoners freed in a two-stage arrangement, the first involving the release of 450 for the soldier, and the remaining 550 afterwards.

How was agreement reached?

Previous attempts at negotiating a deal have fallen apart because of disagreements over which Palestinian prisoners are to be freed, and arrangements over exile. Each blamed the other for the breakdown of talks.

This time around, both sides appear to have shown flexibility to ensure a deal. Egypt played a key role, with negotiations opening on Thursday under the mediation of Egyptian security and intelligence officials. In a tweet, Netanyahu thanked "the Egyptian government and its security forces for their role in mediation and concluding the deal". Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, also thanked Egypt, as well as Qatar, Turkey, Syria and Germany.

Details are yet to be confirmed, but it appears that German diplomats also played a significant role, with German mediator Gerard Conrad flying into Cairo last week.

Why now?

Renewed talks were first reported in mid-September, with Al-Hayat newspaper saying that the Hamas delegation was eager to reach a deal quickly.

The Israeli cabinet approved the deal last night after a late-night meeting, with 26 ministers voting in favour and three opposing it. Netanyahu is said to have warned that if the deal was not passed, it would be a serious setback that would delay Shalit's release by several more years.

It is not entirely clear why officials were willing to reach a compromise where they have failed before, but the deal has been met with celebration in both Israel and Palestine. Both Hamas and Israeli officials have used it to proclaim the unity of their people. It is not unreasonable to think that the deal was motivated by the need to boost morale amid the stalemate of the peace process.

What the commentators say

In Haaretz, Ari Shavit argues that although Israeli politicians may have had cynical motives, there is one reason to support the deal:

Israel's main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel toward one another.

Without this feeling, there is no meaning to our lives here. Without this feeling, we have neither army, security nor the ability to protect ourselves. Rightly or not, Shalit has become a symbol of mutual responsibility. And therefore his upcoming release will not only be the redemption of a captive and the saving of the life and the return home of a son. Shalit's release will be the realization of Israeli solidarity.

Over at Al Jazeera, Ali Abunimah criticises the Israeli government's use of Shalit as a propaganda tool:

Israeli officials have stated publicly that the denial of visits to Palestinian prisoners and other measures against the entire population are intended as a form of pressure, in other words, collective punishment - a grave crime under international law.

Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, for example, said early in June that Israel should not lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip until Hamas allows an ICRC visit to Shalit.

The tragedy of the Shalit case is not just that Israel is using it to divert attention from the collective punishment of Palestinians, but that Shalit could already have been home long ago if Israel's leaders had not reneged on the German-brokered deal.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.