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1,000 to 1: why did Israel agree to the swap?

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Robin Lustig | 11:13 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

I have a proposition for you this week: I'll give you one pound if you promise to give me £1,000 in return.

No? So why do you think Israel has agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas of just one captured Israeli soldier?

The 25-year-old soldier's name is Gilad Shalit, and he's probably one of the best known men in Israel. He was snatched by Hamas fighters more than five years ago close to the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip - and he's been held, incommunicado, somewhere in Gaza ever since.

Within the coming days, he'll be freed, and there'll be mighty celebrations across the length and breadth of Israel.

His family, who have waged a relentless campaign to keep his name in the public eye and to put pressure on successive Israeli governments, will be ecstatic.

So will 1,000 Palestinian families, especially the relatives of the 315 Palestinians who were serving life terms in Israeli jails. (There are thought to be in total more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.)

But why did Israel agree to the lop-sided deal? There are several reasons: first, because it is an Israeli tradition to bring every lost soldier home, dead or alive. In the past, similar deals have been done to win the return of slain soldiers' bodies, or even of body parts.

Israel is a small country, with a conscript army. Israelis accept the reality of combat risk in the knowledge that the State will do anything, if the worst happens, to "bring the boys home".

Second, because Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, needed a victory. He's lost two important regional allies - Egypt's President Mubarak and Turkey under its ever-more assertive prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - and was unable to prevent the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas scoring a substantial propaganda coup at the United Nations last month with his appeal for Palestine to be recognised as a full State member of the UN.

So the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit is, in the words of Israeli political commentator Yossi Verter of Haaretz, "the most important deal of his [Netanyahu's] life ... he will forever be remembered as the man who brought back Gilad Shalit."

But the truth is that this deal has been on the table, more or less in its current form, for quite a while. What's changed is the regional political environment.

As Mr Netanyahu himself candidly put it: "With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal -- or any deal at all for that matter ... This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed."

As for Hamas, it needed to do something to show, after Mr Abbas's coup de théâtre at the UN, that it's still in the game. A thousand celebrating Palestinian families means thousands more Hamas supporters. The message is a simple one: Hamas's armed struggle gets 1,000 prisoners released, whereas the endless non-negotiations of Mr Abbas's Fatah get nothing.

Each side made some concessions to get this deal signed. Israel agreed that some, although not all, of the released Palestinian prisoners will be allowed to live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip (there was, apparently, endless haggling over individual names); Hamas agreed that some of the best-known prisoners, including the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, much touted as a potential future Palestinian leader, will stay behind bars.

As for what follows, who can tell? With both Netanyahu and Hamas strengthened, and with a shaky Gaza ceasefire in effect yet again, might they now be able to move forward on more substantive issues?

Optimists say it's possible. But in my experience, when it comes to the Middle East, optimists are usually disappointed.


  • Comment number 1.

    The laddie is not yet home. I'll believe it when he is.


    And Hamas have every intention of abducting more soldiers, given the opportunity.

  • Comment number 2.

    2. According to the agreement presented by Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, Netanyahu brought before the cabinet
    a) release of 450 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 with life sentences.
    b) 110 prisoners will be released to their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, out of whom 55 are Hamas men, with the rest belonging to Fatah and the other Palestinian groups.
    c) 131 Gaza residents will be released back to the coastal Strip, many of whom are reportedly top Hamas operatives.
    d) Another 203 prisoners will be expelled from the West Bank, 40 of whom will be deported overseas and the rest to Gaza.
    e) 6 Israeli Arab prisoners who have been serving for many years will also be released to their homes.
    f) The deal also specifies the release of 27 female inmates: terrorists Ahlam Tamimi and Amna Muna will be deported, with the rest of the female inmates are expected to be released to their homes.
    g) The second wave of releases will take place in two months time, at which point Israel will release 550 prisoners OF ITS CHOOSING.
    Shin Bet chief indicated that senior Hamas West Bank operatives the militant group demanded be set free – such as Abdullah Barghouti, Ibrahim Ahmed, Abbas Syed, and others – will not be released from jail. Ahmed Saadat, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, will also remain in prison, as well as Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti.
    About half of those released to the West Bank will live under restrictions that include prohibiting them from exiting the West Bank and, in some cases, the towns in which they live.
    (26 ministers voted in favor of the deal; 3 against - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau of Yisrael Beiteinu & Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon of Likud.)
    It's a good deal for Israel.

  • Comment number 3.

    1,000 to 1 IS A GOOD DEAL for Israel propaganda:
    1. Israel finally gets Gilad Shalit.
    2. Kudos for Benjamin Benjamin Netanyahu who's been having a hard time
    3. 1,000 Palestinian prisoners - who can be propagandized at next Palestinian "attack"; I can just hear it: "You see we have given the Palestinians a great deal - 1000 prisoners for 1 Israeli Soldier, & look what they have done in return to Israel!"
    4. 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are likely not the most dangerous or threatening of the 10,000 being held, though Netanyahu will say they are. e.g. Marwan Barghouti, much touted as a potential future Palestinian leader, is staying put.
    5. Israeli tradition to bring every lost soldier home, dead or alive.
    6. Bad political times for Netanyahu, which you have already mentioned in your article. e.g. Israel's loss of two important regional allies.
    7. Shalit Deal has been on the table for a very long time, but Palestine's statehood has never been on the table as much as it is right now. 1,000 prisoners released may be the total of what Israel (& the US) are prepared to give for Mr Abbas' State proposition.
    8.Released Palestinian prisoners will be allowed to live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Where will the rest go - into exile?
    9. Israel, no matter what it appears to do (on the surface) will never, NEVER give up one acre of so-called Israeli Land to make a viable Palestinian State; this Shalit Deal is as good as it gets, and it is not a good deal for Palestine!

  • Comment number 4.

    Israel has a lot more prisoners. Am not sure that this is some big boost for Hamas. Palestinians understand that Hamas would not make the same deal for one of their own. The Middle East is in flux right now and no one knows how this will all work out in the near future. Those on the border may not find this such a great deal if one of the released later kills an Israeli. This is about politics.

  • Comment number 5.

    #1 Scotch Git

    "And Hamas have every intention of abducting more soldiers, given the opportunity."

    --- Only 9,000 Palestinian prisoners to go -- never mind the Palestinian dead and injured ?

    It appears Erdogan ( If rumors are correct), -- should be the hero praised in Israeli history books --and not Netanyahu.

  • Comment number 6.



    Re: Erdogan - I am unaware of these rumours. Please enlighten me.

  • Comment number 7.

  • Comment number 8.



    Thank you!

  • Comment number 9.

    Not wishing to sound cynical but this 'deal' has more or less been on the table for some time; so why should Israel do a deal now? I can't help think that Israel has cleverly undermined the PA by giving a boost to Hamas. Israel's plan is to keep Palestine politically divided, and boost the support of an enemy that it can deal with.

  • Comment number 10.

    With America NOT at war in Libya the statement by Ms. Clinton --

    "We hope he [Col Gaddafi] can be captured or killed soon so that you don't have to fear him any longer," Mrs Clinton said. (BBC) --

    is hardly a condemnation of state terrorism but a support of it.

    --rather unfortunate (but at least honest) during todays celebrations.

  • Comment number 11.

    A pound of gold for a truck of silver is the message. There is no question that Galid is of high importance to Israel from a national and international public relations perspective. There is not much other value or logic in releasing one soldier of limited value (in his 20`s) for 1000 + people- many who were confirmed killers. I believe this was done to sway international public opinion and see-saw it in favor of Isreal. What concerns me is the possibility Israel may be using this unusual move to prep public opinion in their favor before some military action. (A concerned observer from across the pond in North America)

  • Comment number 12.



    I disagree. Read Mr. Lustig's seventh paragraph again, then compare it to this.


    It's a different mind-set.

  • Comment number 13.

    1,000 to 1: why did Israel agree to the swap?
    Well as the five year old israelian child answered this question when asked by a TV journalist ofcourse he too was thinking the reply would be something very patriotic and in line with what has been said, "because we have got so many of their prisoners, and they have just got one of ours" Sometimes things are as simple as that..


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