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Friday July 16, 2010 8:00 PM (EST+7)
Gilad Shalit and the politics of prisoner exchange

Read more: Gilad Shalit, prisoners, palestinian prisoners, prisoner exchange, prisoner swap

JERUSALEM, Jun 16 (JMCC) - Pressure on the Israeli government to secure the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit is unrelenting, but analysts believe it is likely to fail.

Dozens of Israelis flock to the protest tent established by Shalit’s parents Noam and Aviva outside the prime minister’s residence. The family vow to camp outside Israel’s cabinet meetings until their son, age 24, is freed.

“I came because I felt it was wrong not to come,” says Ortal Nir Tvi, who recently completed her mandatory military service in the Israeli air force. “It is part of who we are as a society. If we don’t bring him back it says something about us, something that I don’t want us to become. I wouldn’t know us.”


Shalit’s family and their supporter are calling on their government to agree to a prisoner swap with Hamas. “This is democracy. Democracy is about power to the people. They failed in trying to do negotiations, now they should just pay the price,” says Nir Lahav.

Israel and Hamas have been negotiating through intermediary Germany. Hamas’ demand is that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from its jails in return for Shalit.

Shalit supporters want Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept these terms.

“I think some of them are dealing too much with the price. It is not about the price. There is a family here that hasn’t slept in 4 years. It doesn’t matter how much we need to pay,” says Nir Tvi.


The question that remains is whether this direct action will compel the government to agree to Hamas’ demands. Prof. Gabriel Sheffer of Hebrew University believes the government will be able to absorb this pressure without doing so.

“The government, he believes, will not be forced to bow to the protesters demands, as they represent a smaller portion of Israeli society than opinion polls indicate” says Sheffer. “I think the reason why so many people joined the family is emotional, rather than as a protest against the government”.

The question of Shalit’s release however is also too complex to place in a ‘yes-no’ framework adds Sheffer. “Netanyahu has many considerations; this is not just about Shalit”. It is, he argues, connected with issues of Israel’s wider relationship with Hamas.


The government responds to the public’s demands with a compassionate tone. Netanyahu has “total understanding and identification with the Shalit family,” says Mark Regev, the prime minister’s spokesperson. “I have heard him say that if it was his son he would do the same.”

In Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, Shalit’s case was discussed alongside the peace process and nuclear Iran. “I asked the president to exert all of his power and the tools at his disposal to secure Shalit's release,” Netanyahu told fellow cabinet ministers.

And he has named his own price. “The prime minister is willing to release 1,000 security prisoners,” confirmed Regev.


But the stalemate is in the detail. Many on Hamas’ list of prisoners to be released are servicing multiple life sentences, convicted of murder and other serious offenses. Israel says that to release these prisoners is too great a security risk.

Most problematic is where the prisoners will be released to. Israel seeks to ban many from the West Bank claiming that they could re-offend, and thereby pose too great a security risk. Instead, Israel would seek to release prisoners to Gaza or abroad.

Division also exists within Israel’s political and military complex however, on how the government should react. The Israeli military heading West Bank operations has stated that releasing some of the prisoner’s on Hamas’ list back to the area would not increase security threats, says Sheffer.

For now the talks are in gridlock. Israel claims it is waiting for a response from Hamas to its offer of 1,000 prisoners. Hamas confirms it is not conducting negotiations over the swap with Israel.


Noam Shalit claims that the offer to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners is not new. He accuses the government of recycling the position taken by former prime minister Ehud Olmert. It is, many argue, an old promise brought to light to appease the public.

For Palestinians, the offer to release 1,000 prisoners is not a real deal but false progress on a past promise. Many say it is merely a small portion of the unfulfilled Oslo agreements in which Israel was to gradually release over 5,000 prisoners.

B’Tselem estimates that there are 6,338 Palestinian detainees and prisoners in Israeli jails.

Hundreds of families across the occupied Palestinian territories are hoping for their relatives’ release. “Every day, you just can’t forget about them. There are people who are in jail forever; no one can help them,” says Gaza resident Abud Yassin.






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