Shalit swap called best deal possible

Noam and Aviva Shalit speak to the press moments after hearing of their son Gilad’s impending release. (Flash 90)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—About 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners are to be exchanged for the freedom of St.-Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas more than five years ago.

News of the exchange—to be carried out in the coming days—was released dramatically last night, climaxing a years-long public campaign for Shalit’s release. The Israeli cabinet met in emergency session to approve the deal.

The impending swap was greeted by mixed reactions in Israel: much public rejoicing at the end to the soldier’s ordeal, tempered by concern that the price was too high. Many public figures, including Knesset members, voiced fears that numbers of the soon-to-be-released terrorists—many of them convicted murderers—will resume their attacks on innocent Israelis.

Much of the public took heart from the reassurance given by the head of the General Security Service (Shin Bet), Yoram Cohen. He told a press conference early Wednesday that the prisoner exchange reached between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian mediation, was the best deal possible for Israel in terms of the country’s security.

“”If there were a better alternative, operationally or through negotiations, perhaps we would have chosen it,” Cohen told reporters.”But I think we got the best deal in terms of security parameters. This was a difficult deal in terms of diplomacy, security, and morality, but to bring our soldier home in the relevant time frame negotiations were needed, and the other side dropped its demands significantly on all aspects.”

This notwithstanding, Cohen did not belittle the danger. “I think that we will be able to deal with the threat and potential dangers,” Cohen said. “We cannot promise that they will not produce terror. Statistics show that 60 percent of those released in prisoner swaps return to activity in their terrorist organizations and that 15 to 20 percent return to Israeli prisons.”

On the other hand, the Shin Bet chief tried to put the dimension of the deal into perspective. “There are 20,000 Izzadin al-Kassam Martyrs Brigades members in Gaza and another 200 are not going to make a huge difference,” he said. “Hamas is not interested in an escalation. It has a lot of internal problems that led it to take this deal.”

Some of the terrorists due to be released under the deal include the murderers of kidnapped IDF soldiers Nachshon Wachsman, Ilan Sasportas, and Ilan Saadon. Others include the perpetrator of a bus attack in
1989 that killed 16, the terrorist who killed 10 Israelis in Wadi Harmiyeh north of Ramallah in 2002, the terrorist who helped the suicide bomber of the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem kill 15 civilians in 2001, and several perpetrators of the mob lynching of two IDF reservists in Ramallah in October 2000.

The prisoners with Israeli blood on their hands who come from the West Bank are to be deported to the Gaza Strip or abroad upon their release.

Gilad Shalit is to be set free in about a week, along with 479 terrorists in the first phase of the security prisoner release. Of this number, 279 were serving life sentences.

Some of the terms of the exchange:

  • 96 prisoners who are West Bank residents will be allowed to return to their homes, as will 14 east Jerusalem residents and six Israeli Arabs.
  • 131 prisoners from the Gaza Strip will be released.
  • All 27 female security prisoners will be released, two of whom will be deported Gaza and Jordan.
  • 203 will not be allowed to return to their homes; of whom 40 will be deported abroad and the rest to the Gaza Strip.
  • 165 deportees will be allowed to return to the West Bank in 10-25 years, while the rest are banned for life.
  • After two more months, Israel will release another 550 prisoners.

Cohen told reporters that the five-year deadlock in negotiations for Shalit’s release started to change some three months ago, when Hamas began to show flexibility over the choice of prisoners to be released and
its demand that they all be allowed to return to the West Bank.

Another significant change in the process was that the role of the long-term German mediator was taken over by Egyptian intelligence. Egyptian officials conducted the final phase of negotiations in Cairo last week, brokering talks between Cohen and the head of the Israeli team, David Meidan, and the Hamas delegation sitting in a nearby building.