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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

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

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