Why was Gilad Shalit not freed sooner?

freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (2nd R) walks with (L-R) Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his father Naom Shalit at Tel Nof Airbase on October 18, 2011 in central Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Gilad Shalit after his release

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit's five year's of confinement in Gaza begs the question; could he have been released sooner?

Many were surprised that Israel did not attempt a rescue mission, particularly during its large scale 2008/9 incursion in the Gaza strip.

Clearly, it is extremely hard to find somebody being held in a densely populated Middle Eastern city, as the UK discovered when trying to track down Terry Waite and the other hostages in Beirut.

However, the main reasons for the length of the captured Israeli soldier's imprisonment seem to have been political.

According to Colonel Ronen Cohen, formerly a senior Israeli intelligence officer, the military "never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back".

No rescue plan was ever seriously mooted, nor was there the detailed intelligence gathering going on that would have been essential to enable such a mission, he says.

The underlying reason for this appears to have been a lack of political will or, put another way, a willingness to let Sergeant Shalit remain in Gaza until the politics ripened. There were three key players for whom the timing had to be right; Israel, Hamas, and Egypt.


For Israel the kidnap forced them to deal with the Hamas authorities in Gaza, something they were unwilling to do, particularly once the Islamist movement had taken overall control of the territory in June 2007. Israel's priority, and incidentally the priority of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), was to isolate Hamas, reinforcing the blockade of Gaza.

A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Under the deal Israel has freed 477 Palestinians and another 550 will be released next month

The blockade conditioned not just Israel's attitude to negotiation with the new authorities in Gaza but also Egypt's. Officials in Egypt long maintained that they shut their Rafah crossing with Gaza (where, incidentally Sgt Shalit was freed this morning) on the request of the PLO, which blamed Hamas for killing large numbers of supporters from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party during their takeover.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak apparently needed little encouragement, for he too wanted to isolate Hamas, and this prevented until recently Egypt's intelligence service, which exerts a powerful influence in Gaza, from brokering a deal.

Months passed, and the security situation deteriorated, with rocket attacks on Israeli towns and air strikes in response, until a major flare up resulted in late 2008. During three weeks of heavy fighting something like 1,100-1,400 Palestinians were killed - the exact figure is still disputed.

At this point the political difficulty for Israel became the size of prisoner release that Palestinian intermediaries were demanding and the difficulty of agreeing to a step that might be seen as rewarding the militant group so soon after the fighting.

By the time video of Sgt Shalit was put out by Hamas in October 2009, the failure to secure his release had become enough of an issue for the government to be contemplating the kind of serious sacrifice - a large scale prisoner release - that it carried out today.

The issues from their perspective were that Hamas was asking for too many prisoners, the different Palestinian political groups were arguing about the relative numbers of detainees each should get, and some of those being requested were people who had carried out spectacular terrorist attacks leading to large scale loss of life.

Obstacle removed

So, it had taken years for the Israelis to come to the conclusion that they had little alternative but to deal with Hamas and give them the kind of exchange that could be depicted as a major victory, but by then it was over to the others. Arab analysts believe current political trends played an important role.

In the first place the fall of Mr Mubarak removed an obstacle to Egypt playing a fuller role. In Gaza meanwhile, Hamas felt popular pressure to negotiate an easing of the Israeli blockade, and to regain political ground lost to President Abbas this summer when he took his people's case for recognition to the United Nations. Thus Egypt began to close the gap between Israel and Hamas, and a deal became a real possibility.

Where does this leave peace in the region? Most probably the impact of today's events will be tactical rather than strategic. The fundamental obstacle to Israeli political dialogue with Hamas remains, which is that the Islamic movement will not accept Israel's right to exist or the two state solutions as anything more than temporary accommodations.

On the other hand, the release of Sgt Shalit clears an obstacle to further political liaison and easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, something that may ease tensions in the region.

Mark Urban will give his take on what the wider impact will be of the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on Tuesday's Newsnight, 18 October 2011, at 2230 on BBC Two.

Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Illegal deportation: Palestinians who were designated to be deported under a prisoner exchange with Israel have begun arriving in their host countries: Syria 16 former prisoners, Turkey 11 - about 40 Palestinians altogether.
    This is a contravention of international law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Israel blockaded Gaza in response to Shalit’s capture. With his release, this pretext no longer exists. As a result, PCHR calls for its immediate end, for international community to intervene to relieve years of Gazan suffering. Why is Israel not sanctioned, expelled from UN unless Gaza’s occupation ends?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Israeli prison conditions violate intrnational laws. They have further deteriorated since Shalit’s capture. Cruelty includes severe overcrowding; poor ventilation & sanitation; no change of clothes; wooden planks with thin mattresses for beds; filthy blankets; inadequate food; medical neglect; & hindered access to family. Last June, Netanyahu announced plans to toughen conditions...

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    October 13, Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) welcomed deal, PCHR said it calls for swapping 1,027 Palestinians for Shalit. Terms include releasing 27 women & shockingly @ 300 children. Some prisoners will remain including Marwan Barghouti - prejudged Palestine’s next president.
    Deportations of Palestinians = forced migration = violation international law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Gilad Shalit on June 25, 2006, captured by Hamas. Until now, Israel has refused to negotiate in a responsible & serious way to set Gilad free. It preferred using his captivity to vilify Hamas. Then, on October 12, Haaretz headlined Israel cabinet had approved Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. It was likely to deflect attention from Netanyahu's several other domestic problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    the strategic aim is still to wipe palestine off the map. as long at they believe they can do that israel will continue with settlements. that tactical aim is to do it by salami slicing.
    the uk is helping by refusing to ask the israeli for a list of the names of uk citizens who have been working for the israeli state so they can be prosecuted along with their facilitators in the uk

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I doubt that most released Palestinians were murderers or terrorists or even soldiers. Any Palestinian would think he was lucky to be captured; his normal expectation would be death by shooting. Palestinians imprisoned for throwing rocks etc. are not highly dangerous, especially the children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Asides from the fact that Israel seem to think 1 Israeli is worth 1000 Palestinians, there would be no Palestinian prisoners at all if Israel never occupied the land of another people. As such, all the Palestinian prisoners should be released and Israel prisons should be torn down, and all the land handed back to the rightful owners (the Palestinian people).

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Perhaps Israeli Govt had to do this in order to send its citizens a “message” about how much it valued their lives. But if these deals lead to more deaths of totally innocent Israelis, real message seems exactly opposite: govt is willing to make sacrifice of innocent life to gain short term public relations. Perhaps Israel wanted Shalit back before starting another attack on Gaza/Hamas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    In 1995 book “A Place in the Sun” Netanyahu called Jibril Deal fatal blow to Israel’s efforts to form international front against terrorism. He warned of consequences of such moves. The release of terrorists, he said, will inevitably lead to escalation of violence, because these terrorists become heroes. In view of this, how does one explain his even more lopsided agreement for Shalit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There are fears release of convicted prisoners will lead to further attacks on Israeli civilians - a fear that some critics say is borne out by stats. According to Israeli Association of Terror Victims "Almagor", since 2000, 180 Israelis have lost their lives to terrorists freed in previous deals. If this figure is accurate, it greatly outweighs number of Israeli hostages freed in such deals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    There is dissent. Israeli Cabinet vote was 26–3; yet the debate continues: What price is Israel willing to pay to free a single soldier. Families of victims of terror, as well as some members of the Israeli Govt, have expressed fierce opposition; one minister called it “a great victory for terrorism”.



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