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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.