Swapping one famous Israeli prisoner for 1,027 Palestinians

Palestinians at a rally in Jerusalem on Friday called for the release of family members held by Israel. The full list of the more than 1,000 Palestinians to be freed will be made public on Sunday. (Source: www.nytimes.com)

Of the 1,000 Palestinian men and 27 women Israel has agreed to release from prison in return for its abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit, 550 are designated “a gesture to Egypt”, which brokered the complicated deal. Selected by Israel from among the 6,000-odd Palestinians it holds in its jails for terrorist (as opposed to mundanely criminal) offences, they are to be freed in two months’ time.

The other 450, plus the women, were selected by Hamas, the Islamist organisation that rules the Gaza Strip and that has been responsible for Sergeant Shalit’s incarceration for the past five years. They will be freed very soon and some hours before Sergeant Shalit—assuming everything goes smoothly and the Israeli Supreme Court rejects a series of appeals against their release by relatives of some of those they killed. Questions are being asked why Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, decided to relent after years of refusing so lopsided an exchange.

Mr Netanyahu cited regional turmoil as the reason for agreeing to the swap right now. “I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal—or any deal at all for that matter,” he said. Intelligence officials briefing the cabinet suggested that violent unrest in Syria was a primary cause for a shift by Hamas. It may choose to move its leadership to Egypt, which may have made a prisoner deal a precondition.

Mr Netanyahu made no mention of the ongoing effort by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to win statehood at the UN, a move he vigorously opposes. Plainly, though, the prisoner deal will enhance Hamas’s standing with the Palestinian public, presumably at the expense of Mr Abbas.

Moshe Ya’alon, the deputy prime minister, warned that many of the freed men will take up arms again, despite the Israeli security services’ best efforts to keep tabs on them. He recalled the same happening in 1985, when 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were swapped for three Israeli soldiers.

Most of the cabinet still voted for the deal. For Mr Netanyahu’s more cynical critics this was a sign that the prime minister and his coalition were closing ranks behind a populist move designed to capture public sympathy. The government has been unnerved of late by a broad-based social-justice movement, which organised large demonstrations during the summer.

The prime minister stresses that Hamas has to do without such high-profile prisoners as Ahmed Saadat, convicted for the murder of an Israeli minister in 2001, and Marwan Barghouti, convicted of several murders but widely seen as a possible future Palestinian leader acceptable to all sides in the long-running conflict. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on October 15, 2011 (The Economist Print Edition).


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