JERUSALEM – The news last week that captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would soon be released sparked elation in many corners of Israel. “When I heard about it, I almost cried I was so happy,” said Sammy Hevroni, 52. “It makes me feel that if, God forbid, something happens to my son who is in a combat unit in the army right now, someone will go and bring him home.”
But, Hevroni added, he is concerned about the cost: the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them murderers, who could fuel a new round of terrorism in Israel. (According to the Israeli daily Maariv, the Palestinians to be released are collectively responsible for the killing of 569 Israelis.)
Still, he said, Israel had no choice when it came to making the deal. A Dahaf Institute poll published in Yediot Aharonot had 79 percent of Israelis backing the deal with 14 percent opposing it.
Many Israelis, however, said the price was simply too high. National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, one of three ministers who voted against the deal in the Israeli Cabinet, called it “a victory for terrorism.”
The deal, which was approved by Israel’s Cabinet in a 26-3 vote, raised two immediate questions: Which side finally acceded to the other’s demands after years of fruitless negotiations since Shalit was captured in a June 2006 raid along the Israel-Gaza border, and what took so long to get here? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered some hints about the first issue in a hastily called news conference shortly before going into the special Cabinet meeting. This deal, he suggested, was the best Israel was going to get, so if Israel was ever going to recover Shalit, it had to happen now.
“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,” Netanyahu said on Israeli television.
“The window appeared following fears that collapsing Mideast regimes and the rise of extremist forces would make Gilad Shalit’s return impossible.” (Editor’s Note: The Jewish Press had an early holiday deadline this week. Shalit was expected to be released on Tuesday at the Rafah crossing point on the border with Egypt. Some 477 Palestinians were also set to be released Tuesday, including 287 who had been sentenced to life in prison; the remaining 550 will be freed at a later date.)
Netanyahu wrote to family members of the victims of attacks perpetrated by some of the 1,027 prisoners to be released.
In the letters, issued Monday, Netanyahu told the families he understands their “negative feelings” toward the deal because of the death of his brother Jonathan, who was the sole casualty of the 1976 Israeli operation to free hostages at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
“In my many deliberations throughout the negotiations, you were always on my mind,” he wrote, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“The decision to release Gilad Shalit was one of the most difficult ones I have ever made. It’s difficult for me for the same reason it’s difficult for you, dear family members.”
Dozens of those families and other protesters marched Monday morning to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, where a three-justice panel convened to hear petitions opposing the deal.
The Almagor Terror Victims Association asked the court to cancel the prisoner swap deal. The association also asked the court to delay the releases to allow more time to study the list and make objections. Several families also have filed separate petitions against the release of particular prisoners.