A decade after Israel released over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one captive Israeli soldier, the heated debate surrounding the deal still rages as negotiations for a new deal reportedly are ongoing.
Gilad Shalit was held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip between 2006 and 2011. For five years, Israeli public opinion swayed the Israeli government into negotiating the agreement, perhaps not wishing for the lopsided outcome, but eager to see its soldier return home.
Israel reportedly tried to negotiate Shalit’s release days after his abduction, with the hopes of paying a lesser price. But, as those talks failed and public pressure mounted, so did the price. Shalit’s family campaigned aggressively in the Israeli media and through the public for his release.
When Shalit returned to Israel in 2011, some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were set free, amid sharp criticism in Israel and a sharp turn in public opinion. Among the freed prisoners were killers sentenced to life in prison and masterminds of attacks against Israelis. Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in Gaza, was one of the prisoners released in the exchange, after his four life sentences were cut short by the deal. Family members of terror victims were highly critical of the releases but their attempts to stop the deal by petitioning the Supreme Court failed.
As much as Israelis were jubilant to see Shalit reunited with his family, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the heat for an agreement many deemed unfair.
As Israelis mark a decade since the swap, the debate on the price Israel paid is still highly relevant.
Currently, Hamas in Gaza is believed to be holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in a military operation in 2014. In addition, two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, are believed to be held in the Gaza Strip after straying there.
Both Mengistu and al-Sayed suffer mental health conditions and have no involvement in the hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Indirect negotiations have reportedly been going on for years through Egyptian mediation. Reports that a deal was close to being sealed have surfaced before, but this has yet to happen.
Throughout its history, Israel has carried out many prisoner swaps at high prices. But the Shalit deal might have dented public support for such agreements.
“It was not just the large number of prisoners released, but the personalities – people who were behind the killing of many Israelis,” according to Ronni Shaked, coordinator of the Middle East Unit at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “The memory of the terror attacks they carried out was still very fresh in the minds of Israelis,” he added.
For the Palestinians, the release of prisoners is one of the highest goals of their struggle against Israel. For Israel, the release of captives, especially soldiers, is a sensitive subject. The return of captives is considered a holy commandment in the Bible. Thus, the intense political pressure put on Netanyahu at the time, paved the way for the deal.
“Israel made many mistakes throughout its history by caving in to the exaggerated demands,” said Shaked.
With sophisticated and often strategically placed intelligence assets and different leverage vis-à-vis Hamas, Israel could find different ways to release its citizens without paying a high price.
Throughout the years and several major military confrontations between the sides, Israel has been presented with the opportunity to pressure Hamas and demand the release of its captives. The families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose bodies are being held by Hamas, have been vociferous in calling for the conditioning of any cease-fire with the return of their sons.
The almost continuous stream of humanitarian aid from Israeli-controlled crossings into the Gaza Strip also has angered the families and their many supporters. Several international law experts have called for a change in the equation. The release of the soldiers should be considered a humanitarian matter rather than subject to negotiation between enemies. They believe that if Hamas wants to receive humanitarian aid, it should reciprocate by handing over dead and live Israeli citizens.
The debate on this principle became increasingly relevant as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. Already one of the most impoverished territories in the world, the pandemic has pushed Gaza to the brink of an even greater humanitarian crisis.
But the dire situation in Gaza has not seen Hamas budge.
“Hamas separates the issue of prisoner release from any other issue, including the issue of rehabilitating Gaza and the transfer of funds to the strip,” said Gershon Baskin, who operated a secret and direct negotiating channel with Hamas for Shalit’s release. “They insist on completely separate negotiations. With thousands of prisoners in Israeli prisons, Hamas wants to be seen as their liberator,” he said.
According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights watchdog, there are over 4,000 Palestinian prisoners currently being held in Israeli jails.
The likelihood of a deal now is slim, however.
“The Israelis are now scared to pay a similar price and, this time around, there is no public pressure,” said Shaked.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is unlikely to agree to Hamas’ demands to release over 1,100 prisoners again. At his office, a picture of soldiers Shaul and Goldin is displayed behind him. While it may be a sign of his dedication to the issue, it will be a surprise if he agrees to the current terms.
“He has learned the lesson,” Shaked added.
According to media reports, Israel is willing to release prisoners sentenced for lighter crimes, and not those responsible for the deaths of its citizens.
“For Israel, the price Hamas wants in return for the bodies and the citizens is too high,” said Baskin, adding: “If there was a living soldier captured, this would be different. Public opinion on the matter is very fluid.”
For Leah Goldin, the mother of Hadar Goldin, the talk of a price tag on the return of her son is infuriating.
“When Hadar enlisted in the army, no one asked me how much he costs,” she said while choking up. “This is talk of people who don’t want to bring the boys home.” Goldin feels that her family is paying the price for pent-up frustration from the Shalit deal.
In a country with compulsory military service, the subject of Israeli soldiers in captivity is a touchy matter.
“What has happened to us? Are our soldiers like disposable dishes?” asks an emotional Goldin. “The question of a soldier’s price is angering to every mother of a soldier in Israel.”
While many people believe the soldiers should be returned home at all costs, there are other voices being heard throughout the discussion. Opponents of the Shalit deal had warned of its consequences. Criticism mounted as tens of prisoners released as part of the deal went back to executing attacks against Israelis.
The jubilant scenes of Palestinian prisoners being reuniting with their families changed public opinion in Israel quickly. From widespread support for the deal, there was a sharp decrease as time passed.
Hamas officials believe Israel will eventually cave in to their demand to release roughly the same number of prisoners as in the Shalit deal in exchange for Goldin, Shaul, Mengistu and al-Sayed. But in Israel, there seems to be little willingness to budge.
“I still have hope, I have no other alternative,” said Goldin, “I do not have the privilege of giving up.”
The article was written by Keren Setton and reprinted with permission from TheMediaLine