Prisoner swap: why now?
For some, the absence of Mubarak removed an obstacle to Shalit's release; for others, Shalit's release removes an obstacle to Israel attacking Iran, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza
Palestinians wait at Beituniya checkpoint near Ramallah for the release of prisoners
A resident in Gaza City told me he couldn't believe his eyes. The Yamen family, who were all members of Fatah, had just hoisted the green flag of Hamas on top of their home. The decision to change colours was taken unanimously by all members of the family the moment they learned that young Mohamed Yamen, who was serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail for having shot an Israeli occupation soldier during an armed confrontation, would be among the Palestinian prisoners to be freed under the prisoner exchange deal that was just concluded between Hamas and Israel. Mohamed's mother, who was the first to suggest raising the Hamas banner, explained that by capturing the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas succeeded in achieving what Fatah had failed to accomplish during 16 years of "futile" negotiations. "We feel that we've become one people who care about each other again. Were it not for this deal my son would have died in prison and his father and I would have died before ever being able to hug him again."
The Yamen family was not alone in raising the green flag; many families whose members belong to other organisations similarly demonstrated their gratitude for Hamas's accomplishment. As you move through the streets of Gaza, you quickly sense the air of celebration. Many of the groups of people strolling through the streets and alleyways are on their way to offer their congratulations to the families whose sons were named on the list of prisoners to be released. Groups of young men are stringing up decorations over the streets. Children are handing out sweets to passersby. Cars equipped with amplifiers are blaring out patriotic and popular songs. Friends and relatives are using every available moment to make welcome home preparations for their loved ones. Salah Ayyad would not rest on Saturday until he managed to persuade a crew of painters to put their present job on hold and turn their full attention to sprucing up his brother's apartment in Zuweida village in central Gaza. His brother Hamed is among the hundreds who are to be released in the middle of next week. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment and had already spent 14 years in Shatta Prison in Israel. He is now 36 years old. His family hopes that now he will be able to marry and raise a family.
Many of the prisoners' relatives who live abroad have decided to return to Gaza to take part in the welcome home celebrations, a decision aided by the reopening of Rafah Crossing. Some families suddenly deferred other celebrations until after the released prisoners return. One of the Muslih family's sons was supposed to get married last Thursday, but the wedding was put off until this Thursday, so that Ahmed Muslih -- among those to be released -- could attend.
For some Gazans, the prisoner exchange deal has a special meaning in other ways. Among those due to be released perhaps the most prominent is Yehia Al-Sinwar, 51, who was serving four life sentences. On the eve of the first Intifada, Al-Sinwar created Hamas's security apparatus, which he called Majd (Glory). In 1989, he was condemned by an Israeli military court for the murder of three Israeli soldiers and an intelligence agent. Both Israeli and Palestinian sources agree that Al-Sinwar was a highly charismatic leader with a commanding presence. In prison, he was the leader of the Hamas detainees, and even though he spent long stretches of his internment in solitary confinement, he continued to hold sway over Palestinian political prisoners. Further testimony to his force of character is to be found in the fact that successive Israeli intelligence chiefs cited him as the Palestinian detainee who made the greatest impression on them, both because of his operational activities and because of the way he handled himself during interrogations and in prison. One of the reasons that Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon objected to the prisoner exchange deal, when it came to a vote in the cabinet on Tuesday, was that the list included Al-Sinwar, whom he described as "the most dangerous mind" in the resistance.
Preparatory to the homecoming, the government in Gaza, headed by Ismail Haniyeh, announced that it had formed a committee to oversee the conditions of the released prisoners and to provide accommodation for them. Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Awad said in a press conference that the committee was devoting particular attention to prisoners whose families live in the West Bank. "We do not want a released prisoner to find a difference between conditions of life for him in Gaza and those he would find at home," he said. He went on to explain that there would be two phases in the accommodation process. First, the returnees would be put up in hotels and similar establishments. Then, in the second phase, they would be given a permanent residence. Gaza is expected to receive 165 returnees who originally come from the West Bank. It is generally assumed that the families of these individuals will be able to join them at a future stage. Awad added that his government has set aside an open budget to cover the expenses necessary to ensure comfortable accommodation for the returnees.
But what suddenly made this prisoner swap possible, especially given the seemingly unbridgeable gap that had existed between the two sides until just recently? Observers in Israel believe that the lack of opportunity to free Shalit by military means forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to back down on his original refusal to release prisoners who had been condemned for killing Israeli soldiers and settlers. The hypothesis is upheld by Shin Bet (General Security) Chief Yoram Cohen who said that Israel failed to obtain the intelligence that would facilitate an operation to free Shalit, while all relevant military officials said that no amount of intelligence would guarantee that Shalit could be rescued alive.
In the opinion of Minister of Intelligence Dan Maridor, the Israeli leadership feared that the sweeping changes taking place in the Arab world as the result of the wave of democratic revolutions would close off all opportunities to free Shalit. He added that Israel realised the crucial role that Egypt played in brokering the agreement, but at the same time it was uncertain how long the current form of government would continue. Tel Aviv fears that the forthcoming legislative and presidential elections in Egypt will produce a government that is openly hostile to Israel and that would not see it in its interest to mediate with Hamas to free Shalit.
Israeli Channel 2 top commentator Amnun Abramovitch offers a markedly different opinion. The end of the Mubarak era proved instrumental in enhancing the opportunities to free Shalit, he said. Citing Israeli military and intelligence leaders, he said that the Mubarak regime, as represented in the person of former Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, had not been keen on reaching a deal because it felt that such a deal would contribute to strengthening Hamas, which for the Mubarak regime was out of the question. Simultaneously, he said, Israeli officials could not ignore the widespread sympathy for Shalit and his family among the Israeli public and they also feared that the soldier's continued captivity would demotivate Israeli youth from volunteering for combat service in the Israeli army.
On the other hand, not a few analysts strongly suspect that Netanyahu and Ehud Barak's enthusiasm for the exchange deal was primarily motivated by their eagerness to attack Iran. This would require settling a number of pending issues, not least of which the Shalit file, for an Israeli offensive against Iran would render the possibility of his release more remote than ever.
Perhaps the most frequently voiced objection to the prisoner exchange deal in Israel was that it would boost the popularity of Hamas and simultaneously deliver a stinging blow to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli commentators emphasise that the Israeli cabinet's approval of the prisoner exchange deal at this time was not a way to get back at Abbas for pressing for recognition of a Palestinian state in the UN. It was not in the interests of Israel to undermine Abbas because he is opposed to armed resistance and even to popular resistance, which constitute a threat to Israel, they said.
Several ideas have been aired in Israel in order to offset the damage the deal would do to the Palestinian president. One was to release another contingent of Palestinian prisoners and frame the step in a way that would give credit to Abbas. Nevertheless, as strongly as the suggestion was advocated by some media figures and retired generals, there is no indication that it has been taken up by government officials in Israel.
THE DEAL to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was not the first, and will not be the last.
After the 1948 war, a swap deal was concluded between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon on the one hand and Israel on the other.
In 1954, the Syrian forces captured five Israeli soldiers who went into the Golan Heights on a secret mission. The body of one of them was returned to Israel in 1955 and the other four were returned the following year in return for 41 Syrian prisoners.
In 1957 a major deal was concluded between Egypt and Israel according to which 5,500 Egyptians and four Israeli soldiers were released.
In 1968, a deal was made between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel via the Red Cross after fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Israeli plane and forced it to land in Algeria. The deal organised the release of some 100 passengers in return for 37 Palestinian prisoners.
In 1983, Israel freed 4,600 Arab detainees in return for six Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon.
In June 1984, Israel swapped 291 Syrians captured in battle and the remains of 72 Syrians for six Israelis and five bodies. Israel also freed 20 Arab civilians held for spying and security offences.
In May 1985, Israel released 1,150 Arab prisoners in exchange for three Israel soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in Lebanon. The deal took almost nine months to negotiate.
In June-July 1985, Israel freed 331 Lebanese Shia detainees. Shia leaders say their freedom was guaranteed in exchange for the return of 39 foreign passengers hijacked in an American TWA airliner to Beirut. Israel denied a connection.
In July 1996, Hizbullah and Israel carry out a German-brokered swap when the bodies of 123 guerrillas are returned to Lebanon in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers.
Hizbullah also freed 17 fighters of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia, which in turn freed 45 Lebanese captives.
In January 2004, Israel released 436 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in a deal with Hizbullah for the return of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman, and three dead Israeli soldiers abducted on a border patrol in 2000.
In July 2008, in return for releasing five men, Israel recovered from Hizbullah the bodies of two of its soldiers captured in a 2006 cross-border raid that triggered a 34-day war with the group.
In October 2011, Israel agreed a deal with Hamas that some 1,027 Palestinians prisoners would be freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Shalit who has been held captive since June 2006.