Latest update: November 14th, 2011
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.
Shalit’s father, Noam, also attended the proceedings and submitted his own response to the petitions, arguing that “any change in its delicate framework could torpedo the entire deal.”
The deal for Shalit reportedly was signed by the two sides on Oct. 6 in Cairo following years of negotiations and mediation via the Egyptians. News of the deal was first reported by the satellite TV station Al Arabiya.
There was also a secret channel between Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad and Gershon Baskin, the Israeli co-director of the dovish think tank IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Shalit’s release would mark a remarkable end to a five-year saga that has transfixed the Israeli public, frustrated two successive Israeli governments and spanned two wars.
Then a corporal in the Israeli army, Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006. Almost immediately his family launched an incessant public campaign to free him. The crusade included vigils, marches, meetings, statements by world leaders, celebrity endorsements, bumper stickers, congressional resolutions, songs and a protest encampment opposite the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Shalit’s plight struck a chord in the Jewish state and the Jewish world, and Israelis and Jews from all walks of life and political camps took part in activities calling for his release.
It’s not clear whether this public campaign helped usher in the deal announced or whether it hindered an agreement from being reached.
Shalit’s family believed it had to keep up the public pressure on the Israeli government to seal the deal. At the official state Independence Day ceremony last May, Shalit’s brother Yoel darted onstage with his girlfriend and a banner reading “Shalit is still alive.” Instead of getting arrested for the stunt on national television broadcast, he got an audience with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
But some analysts warned that all the public clamor to free Shalit only made a deal more difficult by increasing the price Hamas demanded for his release.
The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a top priority for Palestinians, and the deal was expected to strengthen Hamas in Gaza. Hamas had been losing ground to the rival Fatah faction, which controls the West Bank and whose leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was cheered as a hero for petitioning the United Nations last month for Palestinian statehood recognition. The deal is seen as a victory for Hamas in the rivalry between the two factions.
Over the past five years, Gilad Shalit had become a household name in Israel. In thinking about Shalit and the efficacy of such a prisoner exchange, parents in this country of mandatory army conscription invariably ask how they would feel if it were their son being held captive.
Now, with Shalit set to be released, many wonder about his physical and mental state. In five years and four months of captivity, Shalit was allowed no international visitors. Two years ago, his captors released a brief video of Shalit issuing a call to Israeli leaders to agree to a deal for his release.
“The video showed he is functioning and speaking, but who knows what has happened to this young man,” Reuven Gal, the former IDF chief psychologist, told Israel Radio. “Gilad was presumably held in physical and emotional isolation, and the result is likely to be serious trauma.”
Gal said the best chance for full recovery is for Shalit to spend as much time with his family as possible.
– JTA, with supplemental reporting by Jewish Press staff.
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