Last Updated: Thu Oct 20, 2011 12:45 pm (KSA) 09:45 am (GMT)

The Shalit exchange: Weighing the cost of freedom

Has the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli army hero, been appropriately weighed up? (Photo by Reuters)
Has the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli army hero, been appropriately weighed up? (Photo by Reuters)

The ball is now rolling on the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. As the abducted Israeli soldier is freed by Hamas on Tuesday in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, the landmark deal has left both sides pondering the true price of freedom.

Could one man be worth more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners? How has their freedom been weighed up?

A number of the Palestinians being released are linked to high-profile attacks on Israel, such as the suicide bombing at Sbarro Pizzeria in 2001, in which 16 Israelis were killed. While the average Israeli may be worried about the new security threats these freed prisoners pose, the conditions of the deal somewhat address that stumbling block.

 He’s held in a dungeon, in darkness, against all international norms … Gilad Shalit is the son of every Israeli family 
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in Sept. 2011

More than 200 of the prisoners released will be not be allowed to return to Palestine and will instead be deported to other countries, including Qatar and Turkey. Those from the West Bank will also not be allowed to return home, and will be deported to Gaza.

The prisoner swap did not include the notorious Palestinian militants Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic leader of the Fatah faction, and Ahmed Saadat, found guilty of ordering the murder of Israel’s tourism minister in 200l; they will remain Israel’s prisoners.

Even though Hamas did not demand Barghouti’s release ─ possibly because he would be a strong heir to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and in turn, bolster the Palestine Liberation Organization’s cause ─ a few caveats have cushioned the deal, safeguarding Israel’s prisoner release to some extent.

Now consider what Israel is getting in return. The international media that has hyped Shalit’s cause since he was captured in 2006 in an attack on an Israeli army post is proof that the 25-year-old symbolizes much more than merely a seized soldier.

“For Hamas, the Islamist movement that seized power in Gaza in June 2007, Shalit is a valuable prize … [He] remains a symbol of what most Israelis believe is their country’s sacred duty to bring its soldiers home at any cost,” The Telegraph editorialized on Tuesday.

Israeli officials such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly told the media that the release of Shalit was a prime national concern.

Barak said in November 2008 that Israel “would do everything necessary and possible, even if it means dangerous operations,” to release Shalit. Netanyahu, meanwhile, in his recent address to the United Nations amid the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition, spoke of Shalit’s case with gusto.

“He’s held in a dungeon, in darkness, against all international norms … Gilad Shalit is the son of every Israeli family. Every nation represented here should demand his immediate release. If you want to − if you want to pass a resolution about the Middle East today, that’s the resolution you should pass,” he told the General Assembly.

Still, was Tuesday’s “done deal” the right way to go about securing Shalit’s freedom? Israeli critics have questioned why Netanyahu agreed to a deal he had once opposed. Two years ago, Netanyahu interfered in a prisoner swap deal being negotiated by Israeli delegates at the behest of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert’s Shalit deal criteria

Then there were disagreements between Hamas and Israeli delegates, Haaretz reported, who had set out some of the following criteria to determine who the Palestinians to be released should be:

• Terrorists with “blood on their hands”
• Whether or not a said prisoner was in a command position and had ordered the execution of attacks against Israelis
• The severity of the attack (number of Israeli fatalities as a result of his actions)
• Length of time served in Israeli prisons
• Special circumstances, such as health conditions.

Negotiations were halted for a period following Olmert’s resignation and Netanyahu’s election victory in March 2009. Both Israel and Hamas accused each other of reneging on deals and of bad faith. Netanyahu then said he would not show flexibility, and that any negotiations were a triumph for terror, Haaretz reported.

Netanyahu recently said that he decided to agree to a deal now because it was the “best deal” Israel could make, particularly “at this time” of Arab Spring volatility.

“I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all,” he told the U.S.-based NBC.

“It is very possible that this window of opportunity that opened because of the circumstances would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all.”

Still, what is probable now is that Netanyahu will be remembered as the Israeli leader that rescued Shalit, just as perhaps (in a very jarring similarity) Obama will be remembered by the world as the American president who managed to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

Tuesday’s deal was reached with the same criteria agreed on in previous talks (the above points). Weighing up the deal proves that Israel and Hamas are both winners on the surface. Whether Shalit’s release was worth more than 1,000 Palestinian releases will continue to be questioned. But for now, Israel’s impassioned chapter on Shalit has been closed and the contentious negotiations of the past have ended.

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