If all goes well, the fundamentalist Palestinian organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, will release Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit, abducted by Hamas five years ago in a cross-border raid. In return, Israel will release 477 "heavy" Palestinian prisoners from its prisons and another 550 down the road as part of the Egyptian-mediated "1 for 1027" prisoner swap. Many Israelis regard this as a major capitulation to Palestinian terrorism.
The deal has been in the making for years and its main features were already conceded by the previous Israeli government, headed by Ehud Olmert. But in agreeing to release so many terrorists and Israeli Arabs convicted of serious security offences, Binyamin Netanyahu, who became prime minister in 2009, has crossed a number of red lines.
In the past, Netanyahu has written and spoken enthusiastically against concessions to terrorist hostage taking and denounced similar unbalanced prisoner exchanges. He likely would have denounced the present deal had it been negotiated by a Labour Party-led government.
Among those to be released are Muaz Abusreikh and Fadi Ju'aba, of Hebron, who in 2003 recruited and sent a suicide bomber into Haifa, where he blew up a bus, killing seventeen; Amana Muna, a young Palestinian woman who in 2001 lured, through the internet, a 16-year-old Israeli, Ophir Rahum, to meet her in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where her friends murdered him; Ahmed Duglas, the head of the Hamas network that carried out the bombing in Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, in which fifteen died; Sami Yunes, an Israeli Arab from Arara village, who killed an Israeli soldier in 1980; and Israeli Arab Muhamad Jabarin, from the town of Um al-Fahm, who in 1987 murdered someone he regarded as a collaborator. Altogether, it has been calculated, the Palestinians to be released killed 588 Israelis, almost all of them civilians, most of them within Israel proper during the 2000-2004 Second Intifada, the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The present prisoner "exchange" is one in a long line, starting in the 1980s, in which successive Israeli governments have bowed to the popular will. In this episode, Shalit's parents mounted a persistent and effective campaign to force the government to bring their boy home. Recent opinion polls indicated that as many as 90 percent of Israeli Jews favored a deal, almost at any cost. In last week's cabinet meeting that finally approved the "exchange," only three ministers, all of them hard-liners (Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau), voted against. Several ministers used the opportunity to push for the prompt release of a number of Israeli Jews imprisoned over the years for murdering Arabs, including Ami Popper,who was convicted two decades ago of murdering seven Arabs and injuring eleven at a bus stop in Rishon Lezion. Netanyahu's standing in the polls has slumped in recent months against the backdrop of rising prices and severe social unrest, and no doubt he believes the saving of private Shalit will earn him brownie points.
But while saving Shalit's life—commentators pointed to the negative precedent on many Israeli minds of Ron Arad, an Israeli Air Force navigator who was captured in Lebanon in 1985 and died a few years later, probably in an Iranian prison, after Israel had refused his initial Lebanese Shi'ite captors' demands—the deal has several outstanding drawbacks, some of them with strategic implications. Clearly, achieving the release of over 1,000 of their prisoners, some of them not members of the Hamas, will boost the Hamas's standing among all Palestinians (including Israeli Arabs, who increasingly see themselves as "Palestinian") and, commensurately, weaken the so-called "moderates" around PLO and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Secondly, it will encourage attacks on Israelis, as the perpetrators (including Israeli Arabs) will know that if caught, there is someone who will engineer their release. Lastly, it will show Israel as "weak" and susceptible only to the use of force. Using a “soft-power” or diplomatic approach, the PLO and PA over the years failed to obtain from Israel mass prisoner releases as goodwill gestures during negotiations.
But Hamas also paid a price in the deal. It failed to obtain the release of a number of symbolic "heavies" in Israeli jails. Netanyahu refused to free Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Fatah's Tanzim terrorist organization during the Second Intifada, whose shooters and suicide bombers killed hundreds of Israelis; Ahmad Sa'adat, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who masterminded the 2001 assassination of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi; and Abdullah Barghouti, Hamas's chief bomb engineer in the West Bank. As well, 203 of the important prisoners will not return to their homes (mostly in the West Bank) but go into exile, either in the Gaza Strip (163) or abroad (40), some of them apparently to Turkey, whose government has supported Hamas in various ways in recent years.
One or two foreign commentators have suggested that the prisoner swap may herald, or even be seen as, the start of Israeli-Hamas political negotiations. This is nonsense: Hamas, listed by both the United States and the European Union as "terrorist," remains bound to its ideological tenets, which include non-recognition of Israel and the ultimate destruction of the Jewish state (though it may be willing to reach temporary, tactical ceasefires that aid it politically or militarily). Thus, successive Israeli governments have ruled out Hamas as a partner for negotiations, much as they have ruled out the Lebanese fundamentalist Shi'ite organization, Hezbollah, even while conducting prisoner-exchange negotiations and deals with it over the decades.
Some Israeli commentators have attributed the timing of the deal to the prime minister's desire to weaken Abbas, who recently asked for UN recognition of "Palestine" as a member state, a move that has challenged the Israelis diplomatically. But other commentators cite the "Iranian option," meaning Netanyahu wanted to "clear" his table of diverting side issues before tackling the major existential threat that faces Israel, Iran and its nuclear-bomb project. It is also possible that Hamas, for its own reasons, decided that this was the moment to reach a deal even without achieving all of its demands. One may assume that a combination of factors was involved.
Image: Ilan Costica