For five years, the image of captured soldier Gilad Shalit returning home has been the national daydream in Israel, engraved on T-shirts and bumper stickers and graffiti in every town and hamlet in the country. Now that it is actually about to happen, that daydream is seen to be embedded in a nightmare. The public understands that as Sgt. Shalit walks in the front door to be embraced by family and friends, 1,027 killers who have been broken out of high-security prisons, will be setting up camp in the backyard.
Hamas received the bulk of what it has demanded since Sgt. Shalit’s capture. This includes the release of many labeled by Israel as “arch-terrorists” responsible for some of the bloodiest incidents during the Palestinian uprising when more than 1,000 Israelis were killed and thousands more wounded. Israel reportedly succeeded in drawing the line around 25 or so terrorist “heavies,” who will not be released. Hamas was also obliged to accept the exile to Gaza of more than 100 terrorists considered by Israel as too dangerous to release to their homes in the West Bank.
Although Hamas‘ broad demands have long been known, it was widely assumed that the lengthy negotiations and Israel’s stubbornness over the years would have seen greater erosion in Hamas‘ position. In the end, Israel made the major concessions because, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there was danger that Sgt. Shalit might suffer the same fate as an Israeli Phantom navigator who was captured by Hezbollah in 1986 in Lebanon and then disappeared.
Apart from the immense security problem the prisoner exchange entails for Israel, Hamas‘ victory has serious political implications since it enhances Hamas‘ standing enormously among the Palestinian public. It is seen as an organization that is serious and can get things done – both in capturing Sgt. Shalit in a bold attack and in holding out until it gets what it wants in exchange for him. This represents a serious challenge to the lackluster and often corruption-ridden regime of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip but the Palestinian Authority controls the more important West Bank, which abuts Israel’s heartland and is in a constant struggle to suppress Hamas sentiment there. Should there be general elections that include both the West Bank and Gaza, as both sides have mooted in the past, Hamas‘ chances of victory will have significantly improved.
In addition, the deal gives comfort to Israel’s enemies and may encourage them to be more pugnacious in the belief that Israel can be made to bend.
The two senior security officials in Israel until earlier this year, the head of the Mossad and the head of the Shin Bet security service, both objected vehemently to Hamas‘ terms. Their replacements have taken a softer view. Past experience suggests that a large percentage of prisoners released in such exchanges return to terrorist activity when there is a flare-up with Israel. Many on the Israeli right wing, including ministers, have objected to the deal, saying that Israel will pay for it in blood.
Hamas‘ major tactical success has been in making it impossible for Israeli special forces to attempt to rescue Sgt. Shalit over the years by taking measures not yet clear. There have been periodic hints in Israel of such attempts.
One consolation for Israel is that it has in the past agreed to an even worse deal for itself with a Palestinian organization. The deal did not undermine Israel’s strategic position and is barely remembered today even though it was exceedingly painful at the time. In 1985, the government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, now Israel’s president, agreed to free 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.
Most Israelis will attempt in the coming weeks to put aside thoughts about the terrorists in the backyard and focus on the return of a soldier, whose whereabouts and conditions of imprisonment for the past five years have been unknown.
Abraham Rabinovich, a Jerusalem-based journalist.