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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.