On June 25th 2006 on the Israeli border near Gaza, Hamas militants surprised a tank patrol, abducting Gilad Shalit and killing two of his comrades. Hamas kept him as a hostage in isolation, likely in an underground bunker, for 1941 days. One thousand, nine hundred and forty one days without contact from friends and family and without medical care or an awareness of the outside world.
On the 11th of October rumours emerged that a deal had finally been agreed, to secure Gilad Shalit his freedom and one week later he arrived home to his family. Malnourished and pale from lack of sun, he looked a direct contrast to the image that had been used as part of the campaign for his release, a smiling photo of a healthy nineteen year old boy. His liberty was secured in return for the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners, men and women incarcerated for crimes including murder and organising suicide bomb operations. It is estimated that the 477 prisoners released on Tuesday are responsible for around 560 Israeli deaths. Many of the prisoners had multiple life sentences, including Ahlam Tamimi, a Palestinian woman who drove a suicide bomber to a pizzeria in Jerusalem where he killed 15 and injured many more. When asked by Israeli news sources if she felt remorse she responded, “No, why should I?” It is clear that a huge sacrifice has been made by the Israeli government to ensure Gilad Shalit’s return, but one that few Israelis would say was not worth it.
It’s difficult for outsiders to understand why the Israeli government would agree to release this many criminals in return for only one soldier. The army is an integral part of Israeli society, with every citizen doing three years of service when they turn 18. As Israel is such a small country most people will have friends or family in the army at any one time. In return for this service the Israeli Defence Force makes a promise to its soldiers to ensure that if captured they will do everything within their power to bring them home alive. For many, Shalit represented their brother, sister, son or daughters serving in the army, becoming afraid that if he wasn’t returned the same thing could happen to their family members.
Whilst Gilad Shalit’s return has mostly been met with relief, those whose children, friends or parents have been killed in bomb attacks by the prisoners who have just been released, and who tried to block the deal to no avail, have reacted differently.
The deal is a great victory for Hamas, who will use this move to claim that they are the party that truly represents the Palestinian people, and Netanyahu, whose approval ratings have soared after securing the deal, especially as Shalit is the first captured member of the Israeli military to return home in 26 years. But it is a great blow for the more moderate Fatah party, whose attempts at diplomacy have largely failed over the past few years and their recent application for statehood at the UN looks destined to be vetoed by the Americans.
A spokesman for Hamas made it frighteningly evident that the organisation would actively continue to capture young Israeli soldiers for leverage. Sickeningly, the returning prisoners, many of whom murdered numerous civilians, received a hero’s welcome in Gaza where thousands flocked to the streets to celebrate their return.
It is more than unsettling to witness the absurdly disproportionate swap of one captured soldier for one thousand prisoners, including many prosecuted for murder. Even years after Gilad Shalit’s release he will not be free of the burden of knowing he had to play a part in the freedom of those who had killed innocent lives and may well kill again. The worst thing about this deal is that it is a victory for terrorism; it shows Hamas and radical members of the Arab world that terrorism is effective, that terrorism works. Gilad Shalit’s freedom after nearly six years must be celebrated, his privacy protected and his future planned for, but we cannot delude ourselves by pretending that his release is without problems.
Hannah Pupkewitz and Daniel Fine