- The Israeli cabinet has endorsed a deal to secure the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held captive in the Gaza Strip without any external contact for more than five years. In return, Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian militants serving sentences in Israeli jails.
- The cost to Israel of releasing so many militants responsible for terror attacks, and of potentially boosting the standing of Hamas, is high. However, the overwhelming desire to bring Shalit home to his family has outweighed these concerns.
- The campaign to bring about Shalit’s release has enjoyed mass support in Israel, where military service is compulsory and almost everyone has a family member, spouse or close friend who serves or has served in active combat duty.
- This deal starkly illustrates the nature of the terrorist threat faced by Israel from Hamas, and the increasing use of kidnapping as a weapon in the terrorist arsenal. This is a threat faced today by UK forces in Afghanistan.
- The deal does not have a direct impact on the peace process. Representatives of the Quartet will continue their efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank, which is Hamas’s political rival. However, Hamas is likely to be strengthened politically, and this may push PA President Mahmoud Abbas to be less willing to compromise.
What is in the deal?
- On Tuesday night, the Israeli cabinet overwhelmingly approved a prisoner exchange deal, which was signed secretly in recent days between Israel and Hamas. The deal will see the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after more than five years in Hamas captivity.
- The framework of the deal has been on the table for more than two years, but until now the sides have been unable to close the gaps on the fine details of the agreement. The deal was made possible as a result of both sides softening their positions.
- Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, in two stages:
- The first phase, which will take place in one week, will see the release of Shalit and the simultaneous release of 477 Palestinian prisoners. Shalit will first be transferred to Egypt and then flown to Israel. The Palestinians released will be according to a list agreed between Israel and Hamas, and includes hundreds of prisoners who are serving life sentences for their involvement in terror activities.
- In the second phase, Israel will release 550 prisoners of its own choosing, which will be presented as a gesture to the Egyptians. This will take place within two months of the completion of the first stage.
- Israeli families of terror victims have been given the opportunity to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court against the release of terrorists convicted of murdering their loves ones. Though some terror victims and their families are likely to protest, this is unlikely to stop the deal.
- Not all of the Palestinian convicts being released will be allowed to return to their homes. Some from the West Bank will be sent to Gaza, and some of the more serious offenders will be sent abroad.
- A number of heavyweight militants responsible for numerous terror attacks are excluded from the list, including Abdallah Barghouti, Abas al-Sayed and Ibrahim Hamed Hamas. Ahmed Saadat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader responsible for the assassination of Israeli minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001, will also not be released.
- There are conflicting reports as to whether senior Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences for murder, will be released. Israeli officials quoted in the media have denied this, but there is no confirmation.
Why did Hamas agree to the deal?
- For Hamas, the Shalit deal is a tool for winning popular support among the Palestinian public, at a time when its domestic political and diplomatic positions have been challenged, and with the potential for forthcoming elections in the Palestinian territories.
- The Palestinian UN bid for statehood, orchestrated by the Abbas-led PA in the West Bank, has marginalised Hamas. The organisation has failed to end its international isolation or bring significant improvements to the situation of Palestinians in Gaza, which it controls. The Palestinian unity agreement signed in May 2011, under considerable pressure from the Palestinian public, shows no sign of being implemented. In this context, the release of 1027 prisoners, many of whom are affiliated with the group, will allow Hamas to claim a victory for the path of violent resistance over Fatah’s diplomatic route. Hamas has threatened to kidnap more Israeli soldiers in an attempt to release more prisoners.
- With its Syrian patrons significantly weakened, Hamas has a greater need to improve its standing in the wider Arab world, and particularly with Egypt. The deal is likely to improve relations between Hamas and the new Egyptian leadership, which will gain international and domestic prestige as a result of the deal.
Why did Israel agree to the deal?
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that he feels that the dramatic changes affecting the Middle East have opened a brief window of opportunity to secure a deal, and that he feared the prospects of a deal would worsen in future. Israeli leaders were apparently concerned that the unstable political atmosphere in Egypt could hamper the long-term prospects of a prisoner swap. Leading Egyptian officials have been crucially involved in brokering the deal, and without their involvement it would have been much harder to reach an agreement.
- To close the deal, Israel reportedly allowed the release of individuals rejected in previous rounds of negotiations, allowed more prisoners to be released to the West Bank and Gaza, and allowed Arab citizens of Israel to be released.
- Another possible reason for the deal now is that the new heads of Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) support it, unlike their predecessors. For the Shin Bet, this is a huge risk. Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen reportedly provided assurances that Israel will be able to deal with the consequences of the release of hundreds of terrorists. These assurances were crucial in convincing ministers to approve the deal.
- Relations between Israel and the PA are at a very low point in the wake of the PA’s bid to secure unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, and Abbas’s popularity has been riding high. As a result, the negative political impact on Abbas of reaching this deal with Hamas may have weighed less on Israel than in the past.
- Securing this deal will improve Netanyahu’s domestic political standing in the short term.
- The deal was supported by all but three members of the Israeli cabinet. The leading opponent of the deal was the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
- Israel agreed to the deal despite the fear that it could incentivise Hamas and other armed groups to attempt to capture more soldiers.
How will the deal affect the peace process?
- The deal does not have a direct impact on the peace process. Representatives of the Quartet are continuing their efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and the PA leadership. These efforts will continue irrespective of the prisoner exchange deal.
- Behind the scenes, Abbas will be under mounting pressure to reassert his leadership position. Conscious of his domestic battle for popular support at the expense of Hamas, Abbas may be even more wary of renewing negotiations with Israel.
What is the background to Shalit’s kidnapping?
- On Sunday, 25 June 2006, armed militants from Gaza crossed into Israel through a tunnel and attacked an IDF base at the Kerem Shalom crossing. Two soldiers were killed and Shalit was abducted and taken back to Gaza. Hamas has not allowed any access to Shalit from his family or the Red Cross, and released only occasional letters and recordings as proof that he was still alive.
- A well-organised ‘Free Shalit’ campaign with mass Israeli public support has kept pressure on consecutive Israeli governments to secure his release. Shalit’s face appears on bumper stickers and posters all over Israel, and his parents appear daily in the media. They have kept a permanent vigil in a tent outside the Prime Minister’s Office for two years.
- The plight of Shalit has captured the attention of Israelis who can identify with the Shalit family’s torment. Military service is compulsory in Israel and almost everyone has a family member, spouse or close friend who serves or has served in active combat duty.
- There are a series of precedents for these kinds of prisoner exchanges in Israel. Most recently, in 2008, Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, four other militants and the bodies of 199 more were released in return for the bodies of IDF servicemen Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose capture sparked the Second Lebanon War. In 2004, more than 400 prisoners were released in return for a reserve IDF officer kidnapped by Hezbollah in Dubai and the remains of three soldiers abducted over the Israeli-Lebanese border. In 1985, more than 1,000 prisoners were released to secure the return of three soldiers captured in Lebanon in 1982. These events create a challenging precedent for Israel, as many of the released prisoners returned to terror activity which claimed more Israeli lives.
- Israelis are also aware of the precedent of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman captured alive in South Lebanon in 1986. Israel was unwilling to pay the price demanded by his Lebanese captors and Arad disappeared, with his fate unknown.