Israel and the Islamic militant organization Hamas commenceda series of complex and politically delicate prisoner swaps on Tuesday that threatened to inflame tensions in the region and marginalize the pro-Western Palestinian faction, Fatah, just as the government seeks recognition for a Palestinian state from the United Nations.
Gilad Shalit, the 25-year-old Israeli soldier who has been held prisoner by Hamas militants for five years, was released Tuesday and transferred to Egypt, which was acting as an intermediary in the exchanges. A brief video posted online by the Israeli Defense Forces showed a wan and visibly weakened Shalit shortly after his return to Israel where, after a brief medical check, he was greeted by a glowing Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Two years and a half ago, I returned to my post as prime minister and one of the most important, complex missions I found on my desk was to return Gilad Shalit home alive and well,” Netanyahu said in a televised address from the military base where he greeted Shalit. “Today that mission has been accomplished.”
The decision to bargain for Shalit’s release was a wrenching political and military decision, Netanyahu said in his address, acknowledging the anger of many Israeli families whose loved ones had been killed by the Palestinians released in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.
“It is difficult to see the miscreants who murdered their loved ones being released before serving out their full sentences,” Netanyahu said. “But I also knew that in the current diplomatic circumstances, this was the best agreement we could achieve, and there was no guarantee that the conditions which enabled it to be achieved would hold in the future. It could be that Gilad would disappear.”
In exchange for Shalit, Israel agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, beginning with a first round of releases on Tuesday. The government bused nearly 500 Palestinian prisoners, many convicted or suspected of acts of terrorism and violence against Israeli citizens, to Egypt, and from there they were transferred to Gaza, where they were met with massive, jubilant celebrations by Palestinians.
Support for the exchange poured in from world leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But there were reservations, and flashes of anger, among some segments of the Israeli public. Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition who voted against the prisoner swap warned that it could lead to the murders of more Israelis.
Moshe Ya’alon, the vice prime minister and member of Netanyahu’s governing Likud Party, warned that the prisoner swap “would be a victory for Hamas and a surrender to terror.” Ya’alon added, “It would give new spirit to jihadist extremists and harm our deterrence. We are obligated to the life of Gilad Schalit and to return him home, but we are also obligated to protect the citizens of Israel.” Meanwhile, the family of a Shlomo Libman, an Israeli killed in 1998 by one the Palestinian prisoners released Tuesday, offered $100,000 to anyone willing to assassinate Libman’s killer.
Analysts were divided on what the prisoner swap could mean for the long-term prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the near term, the deal could marginalize the moderate Palestinian faction, Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has been involved in the deal, according to reports, but it was Hamas that ultimately secured the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, prompting jubilant celebrations throughout the Palestinian territories.
The deal could also put considerable domestic pressure on Abbas, who may fear losing his grip on the government while Hamas is bolstered by the success of the prisoner swap. As a result, some analysts predict, Abbas may double down on his attempt to win recognition of a Palestinian state from the United Nations, further roiling the region and diminishing ties with Israel. “This deal has definitely improved the public position of Hamas and the perception of resistance,” a member of the Abbas administration told Reuters Tuesday. “The success of this deal sends the wrong message to the public.”
Netanyahu, in turn, could see an improvement in his standing among the Israeli public. His popularity has faltered in recent months amid resentment over the state of housing and other socio-economic conditions in Israel and anxiety about the changing political landscape in the Middle East. In September, his approval rating among Israelis was just 41 percent.
Many jaded observers of the peace process dismissed claims that the swap would change much of anything in the calcified politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two sides remain far apart on basic issues, Israel continues to see Hamas as a terrorist organization and Abbas remains intent on seeking nation status from the U.N.
Still, the figure at the center of one of the most historic moments in the history of Israel’s existence, Shalit, was optimistic. “I hope this deal will lead to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and that it will support cooperation between both sides,” he said in an interview with Egyptian television shortly after his release. Shalit added that he was looking forward to “to meeting people, to talking people” and to “not doing the same things all day long.”