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.
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”.
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.
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.