Israel and Hamas Agree on Prisoner Swap

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

The news of a breakthrough in the case of Gilad Shalit — an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas over five years ago — has once again caused much soul-searching in Israel, where reaction to the deal was mixed. Beyond the borders of Israel, analysts and commentators have reflected on the significance of the prisoner swap for both the Netanyahu government and the Hamas leadership, especially in light of the headline-grabbing statehood bid by the PA’s Mahmud Abbas at the United Nations.

The mood in Israel is somber, in view of the concessions made by the Netanyahu government. However, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Haim Misgav concedes, “There is no other choice…. As a member of the camp of Eretz Israel lovers and as one who firmly objects to the diplomatic solution taking shape here, I say that we — the government and the people of Israel — had no choice. The mitzvah of redeeming prisoners cannot be forgone. It is a mitzvah that must be undertaken even if the bloody price it shall exact is terrible — and I know this will be the case. People will be murdered in terror attacks,  but what other choice do we have? Allowing Gilad Shalit to die in prison?…We shall settle the score with the murderers who will be released one way or another. We shall pursue them after they are freed. Every move they make shall be recorded, and I’m certain that at least some of them won’t depart this world in the usual way.”

For Jerusalem Post’s Steve Linde, the news is a “cause for celebration…. There are undoubtedly those in Israel, especially some victims of terror, who will strongly oppose the release of Palestinian terrorists, and even murderers. This is understandable, and their voices should be heard and not judged….Yes, there is no justice in freeing murderers instead of forcing them to serve their sentences in full. And yes, exchanging 1,000 prisoners for one Israeli is hardly fair. But the alternatives are even worse….Despite the sharp differences of opinion in our society over a release of security prisoners, Israelis should join together in their succot this week, pray that Gilad will soon be reunited with his family and celebrate his imminent return home.”

However, there are some that think the price paid has been too great. A report by the right-wing Israel Insider website leads with the title “Terror victim family members express pain, outrage, at approved release of unrepentant terrorist killers.” “Speaking at a demonstration in Jerusalem against the prisoner exchange deal approved after midnight Wednesday, Benzi Ben-Shoham, whose sister was killed in the 2002 terror attack at Cafe Moment in Jerusalem, told Arutz 7 that ‘this is a difficult day for all of us. It’s a happy day for Israelis with a short memory. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was unable to stand up to the other side in negotiations last summer on the protests for a lower standard of living, and more recently with the medical residents. But he apparently is able to hold his own in negotiations with arch-terrorists,’ Ben-Shoham said sarcastically. ‘This is surrender to terror.’”

Two other articles lay out the rationale for why the Shalit deal was the wrong move. In an op-ed for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Yitzhak Tessler asserts, “At this time we can and must declare decisively that a significant part of the religious public, just like the rabbis, objects to the Shalit deal (there are other objectors as well.) There are religious reasons for it, as well as ideological and practical grounds….The Jewish and humane desire to save a prisoner must take into account future deals, which may be much pricier….We are now dealing with a terrible, fateful moment where government members must internalize the rule articulated by “Baal HaTanya,” Shneur Zalman of Liadi – the mind rules the heart.”

In an article on the right-wing Arutz Sheva, David Bedein suggests that in the case of Gilad Shalit, “Israel Succumbs to Ransom.” “Despite their desire to see Cpl. Gilad Shalit home, safe and sound, most Israelis seethe at the possibility that it might indeed trade hundreds of lethal convicts in exchange for an Israeli whom Hamas has managed to abduct. Freeing these convicts will place highly motivated killers on the streets of Israel AND create an incentive for Hamas to kidnap anyone else in the world and demand an even greater ransom in the future for their freedom. This ransom arrangement will establish an international precedent that would communicate:  Abductions Pay.”

The rhetoric coming out of Hamas in the Gaza Strip has done little to alleviate the fear of future kidnappings of Israeli soldiers who may, in return, be used for the release of more Palestinian prisoners.  According to Hamas’s Al Qassam website, “Khaled Meshaal, head of [the] Hamas’s Political Bureau, said in a press conference, that the deal will be executed in two parts, the first part in a week and the second after two months….This is a national achievement for the Palestinian people; we tried to include all Palestinian detainees in the Israeli jails, and we promise the rest of the Palestinian detainees to liberate them. ‘My words to the fathers and mothers who were not included in the deal, do not be sad, your sons will be liberated soon.’”

One Palestinian daily, on the other hand, focused on the fate of one of the most prominent Palestinian prisoners, Marwan Barghouti, whose release Hamas was unable to secure. Maan News’ Tom Perry believes, “Barghouti’s fate [is] now firmly in Israel’s hands… Barghouti is a popular figure among Palestinians. His supporters have portrayed him as a Nelson Mandela-like figure who could galvanize and reunite a divided national movement. Many Palestinians see him as a leading contender to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, 76, as president…. Some speculate it could suit an Israeli government one day to release Barghouti as a counterweight to the Hamas group, which is deeply hostile to Israel and has governed Gaza since it seized power there from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.”

Moving beyond Israel and the Occupied Territories, observers in the region reflected on what was at stake for both sides in the negotiation. The Khaleej Times editorial sees the outcome as a triumph for Hamas: “Whether freeing Shalit impacts future peace talks remains to be seen, but it is unlikely given the Israeli coalition’s divisive perception on peace-building efforts….For Hamas and particularly its chief, Khalid Meshaal, it is a triumphant moment, proving that hardline resistance also obtains results.  It also puts the spotlight back on Hamas which has been out in the cold ever since Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took up the statehood bid.”

Given the significance of the prisoner-swap agreement, The National’s Hugh Naylor and Vita Bekker see more than just a victory for Hamas: “Hamas and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are both likely to score political points from the deal to swap 1,027 Palestinian detainees for a captured Israeli soldier….Commentators said yesterday that Hamas is likely to win support from Palestinians at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, its longtime rivals….Egypt’s military rulers, also facing a loss of support over their handling of Sunday’s protests by Coptic Christians and what some Egyptians see as their attempts to stall the transition to a democratically elected civilian government, may also benefit from the diplomatic breakthrough….Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, suggested that Washington may have lobbied hard for the prisoner swap to teach Mr. Abbas a lesson.”

Amid all the celebrations in the Occupied Territories, as well as Israeli recriminations about giving in to terrorist demands, what seems to get lost is the fact that thousands more Palestinians remain behind bars in Israeli prisons. As the Saudi Arab News notes in an editorial critical of the Israeli regime, “While the Palestinians have every reason to celebrate the liberation of their loved ones, this must draw the world’s attention to the plight of thousands of other Palestinians rotting away for years and decades in appalling conditions in the Israeli gulag.   Amongst the 1,027 prisoners, 315 have spent more than 20 years for demanding freedom and dignity in their own homeland and protesting against the worst occupation the world has ever seen….Right now, the region around the self-styled ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East is undergoing dramatic transformation with freedom and people power forcing out tyranny and injustice. It’s only a matter of time before the Zionists face the same fate.  It’s Israel’s turn to reap the whirlwind it has sowed all these years.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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