Feature

Israel trades 1,000 prisoners for one soldier

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas more than five years ago and denied Red Cross visits throughout his imprisonment.

What happened
In an Egyptian-brokered deal that is causing both joy and anger, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed this week in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas near the Gaza border more than five years ago, was denied Red Cross visits throughout his imprisonment, and his gaunt, pale appearance in an interview on Egyptian television outraged Israeli viewers. For their part, Hamas officials said the first 477 prisoners released this week—many of them serving life sentences for killing Israelis—had been subjected to “torture, compulsion, and revenge.”

Among those released to win Shalit’s freedom were Palestinians who participated in numerous bombings that killed scores of Israelis, including attacks on a Jerusalem pizza restaurant filled with families, a Tel Aviv nightclub, and a bus in Haifa. Several Palestinians who had stabbed Israeli teenagers to death were also released. Family members of those killed bitterly opposed the prisoner exchange, calling it “a day of mourning.” But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was the best deal he could get, and that it was his duty as Israel’s leader “to bring home every soldier who is sent to protect our citizens.”

What the editorials said
Netanyahu “twisted himself in an ideological knot to get this deal,” said The New York Times. He has long insisted that Israel should not negotiate with terrorists. Yet now he has handed sworn killers back to the very terrorist group that shoots rockets at Israel and is pledged to the country’s destruction. By forcing this deal on Israel, Netanyahu has made it clear that he could also halt settlement building, and start real peace negotiations with the Palestinians, if he wanted to. “The problem is not that he can’t compromise and make tough choices. It’s that he won’t.”

What is Netanyahu thinking? asked the New York Post. Releasing “1,000 hardened terrorists” into a region “that is already overflowing with them” is hardly conducive to peace. These criminals will have ready access to the heat-seeking missiles and other sophisticated weapons that are even now being funneled into Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Libya as the war there winds down. “It’s not at all clear that this bargain is in Israel’s best interests.” You have to admire Israel’s “willingness to pay an exorbitant price for its citizens,” said The Wall Street Journal. That sacrifice  stands as “a testament to its national and religious values.” But the Shalit deal makes more kidnappings of Israelis inevitable. Indeed, Hamas has already pledged to take more Israeli hostages to trade for the remaining 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

What the commentators said
Israel simply had no choice but to trade for Shalit, said Nahum Barnea in the Tel Aviv Yedioth Ahronoth. “The price is excessive, the risks are great, and the precedent is displeasing.” But Israel has a national, even biblical, obligation to protect its citizens and especially its soldiers. Shalit was a 19-year-old recruit defending his country when he was snatched and his two companions were murdered. “To let him die in captivity is unacceptable. It does not meet the minimum conditions of the Israeli tribe.”

But Israel had crasser motives as well, said Sefi Rachlevsky in the Tel Aviv Ha’aretz. Netanyahu could have struck this exact deal with Hamas the day after Shalit was abducted—Hamas’s demands were the same then. So why now? Part of the reason was to undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah faction that is Hamas’s rival. Abbas has been enjoying popularity among Palestinians for his high-profile appeal for statehood at the U.N. This deal weakens him and strengthens Hamas, leaving the Palestinians more divided.

Ultimately, though, “the deal changes almost nothing,” said Aaron David Miller in ForeignPolicy.com. Had the deal included the most famous Palestinian prisoner, former Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, that would have been “a direct challenge and threat to Abbas’s leadership.” But Barghouti remains in jail. And the fact that Hamas and Israel managed to strike one limited prisoner swap doesn’t augur some new era of peace. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on with little prospect of serious negotiations, let alone a conflict-ending accord.”

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