As I said at the end of my last post, I was with a group of Israeli social justice protesters when the shocking news broke of Gilad Shalit’s imminent release after five years in captivity. Shalit, captured by Hamas in July 2006 when he was just 19 years-old, has effectively acted as a bargaining chip between Hamas, the militant Islamist party in control of Gaza, and the Israeli government.
The deal to secure Shalit’s release, brokered by Egypt, involved Israel’s release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners. Given the seeming lopsidedness of the swap, many are saying that Israel’s willingness to make the deal show how much it values human life, presumably while the Palestinians do not. In an article probably more adequately reflecting the truth, Rachel Shabi wrote in Al Jazeera that the 1000:1 ratio highlights the asymmetric nature of a conflict that has seen over 700,000 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel since 1967. Many here in Israel have objected to how Shalit was treated while imprisoned in Gaza. While Shalit was certainly held under poor conditions in Gaza, the common conception in the West that Israel treats its prisoners in accordance with all international standards and with the benevolence of an advanced liberal democracy is most certainly wrong. According to Amnesty International, Palestinians are frequently held without charges or trial, when tried are tried in military courts, and in many cases cannot speak with their families (a criticism often leveled at Hamas’ treatment of Shalit). Israel also holds minors in prisons and “consistent allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including of children, were frequently reported.”
This brings me back to Shalit. The deal that ended up being accepted by both sides is not much different than the deal that was on the table 64 months ago when negotiations over Shalit’s release began. The ratio was always going to be this skewed. Negotiations broke down over the proposed release of key prisoners, most notably Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as a potential successor to Mahmoud Abbas and is serving five life sentences. Since the two sides were bargaining over a few names to include or not include on the list, and Israel would always get Shalit back and Hamas would always get their 1000 prisoners, what took so long?
Both sides needed a sense of urgency. Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations gave Hamas and Prime Minister Netanyahu just that. Both rivals of Abbas, Hamas and Netanyahu have had a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” moment. Both opposed Palestinian statehood at the UN. Both sought to upstage Abbas.
For Hamas, Shalit was their biggest bargaining chip, and they were waiting for the optimal time to cash in. In an article in Ha’aretz, Hamas’ motivation to score points and gain legitimacy as a more popular representative of the Palestinian people was exemplified by a Hamas official saying that “Abbas ‘negotiated with Israel for a million years and hasn’t achieved a deal like this one.’”
For Netanyahu, in addition to dealing a blow to Abbas, there were more macroscopic reasons for the timing of the deal. The Arab Spring has left Israel increasingly isolated, especially since the breakdown in diplomatic relations in Turkey and the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last month. Up to this point, Israeli leadership has refused to acknowledge their vulnerability or show an inclination to change course and try to craft a more favorable status quo for themselves by making concessions to the Palestinians, most notably on settlement construction. In his statement about Shalit’s release, Netanyahu finally accepted that the developments in Israel’s region should shape it’s actions:
"I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all. It is very possible that this window of opportunity that opened because of the circumstances would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all."
Even for the Egyptian government, which brokered the deal, the need for a PR victory was staggering. The deal has already improved Israel’s relationship with the military government in Cairo, while the SCAF can also claim a more populist connection to Hamas.
Of course, far-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman rejected the deal.
While there are skeptics on both sides about the deal that was struck, for the most part, this is a rare joyous moment in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Not only is Gilad Shalit finally being returned to his family, but a thousand Palestinians are welcoming home their own sons and daughters, not all of whom are “terrorists” and “murders.” It’s encouraging that both Hamas and Netanyahu have shown a willingness to compromise, and for the latter, it’s important that he showed a realization of Israel’s regional vulnerability. However, the fact that it took 64 months for the deal to be completed is rather inauspicious, leaving one wondering how long negotiations for two states will reasonably take.