More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are to be released in exchange for one serviceman
Noam Shalit stands near cardboard cut-outs of his son Gilad in Jerusalem
Reuters Photo By Ronen Zvulun
By Phoebe Greenwood
Fresh lilies are regularly laid at a monument by the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium bearing witness to an evening in 2001 when 21 Israeli teenagers were killed while queuing outside a nightclub. Another 132 were injured in the attack by Saeed Hotari, a young Palestinian suicide bomber affiliated with Hamas.
But last week flowers arrived more in protest than in sorrow. Husam Badran, the former head of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank and instigator of the Dolphinarium attack, is expected to be among 477 Palestinian prisoners released on Tuesday in a deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. A further 550 will be freed within two months.
“It’s surreal. It’s beyond belief,” said one young mother angrily as she looked at the monument. “I may be the only one against it, but no good deal sees the release of 1,000 killers. People say Netanyahu showed courage in agreeing to set them free, but I say he has given in to terrorism.”
Over the past five years, the parents of captive soldier Gilad Shalit have won the Israeli public with their tireless campaign to free their son, demanding the Israeli government do whatever it takes to rescue him from his captors in the Gaza Strip. Israel celebrated last week when they finally succeeded. But the nation’s joy is tempered with grave misgivings.
To Palestinians, the 1,027 prisoners exchanged for Shalit are freedom fighters. To Israelis, they are terrorists responsible for some of the country’s bloodiest atrocities. Israel wants Shalit free but is struggling to stomach the cost of his freedom.
Gustav Specht, 47, who runs a restaurant close to the Dolphinarium on Tel Aviv Beach, shares the broad public reaction as described in the Israeli media: “I think it’s the least bad result. Everyone I know is happy Gilad will be free.”
But his colleague Alon Reuvney, 28, thinks differently. His friend lost his father in a suicide attack in Jerusalem several years ago: “He heard about the release of his father’s killer on the news. No one thought to tell his family. He is very angry.”
The official list of prisoners agreed for release has not been published, but several leaked versions have appeared on Arabic news websites. Israelis recognised some of the region’s most notorious terrorists. There was Muhammad Duglas, implicated in a suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem in which 15 people were killed. Abdel Hadi Ghanem of Islamic Jihad, responsible for the 1989 attack on a public bus in which 16 Israelis died. And hundreds more like them. Others were convicted of lesser offences.
Few doubt that securing Shalit’s return has boosted prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s popularity but Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Spyer warns he has taken a gamble for public affection. “Within six months time, we will see terrorist attacks linked to these men who are being released. And at that point Bibi [Netanyahu] will pay a very serious price,” Spyer said. “In all of this, the Shalit family and Hamas are the winners; the Israeli public will be the loser.” Israeli terror expert Boaz Ganor agrees the release of these political prisoners has provided Hamas with legitimacy but predicts they will not pose an immediate threat to Israeli security.
Hamas, listed by the US and the UK as a terror organisation, has proved itself a pragmatic negotiating partner. By insisting on the release of prisoners from all factions, it has regained popular support across Gaza and the West Bank, undermining the Palestinian Authority midway through its UN bid for statehood. It would not serve Hamas’s interests, Ganor says, to let the situation deteriorate by allowing released prisoners to wage a campaign of terror. “But I’m not ruling out further kidnappings. This has proved so strategically effective in the past, I believe they [Hamas] would try to kidnap more Israeli soldiers and civilians to gather more power in their hands.” Boaz also said it was the prisoner swap negotiated in 1985 by Shimon Peres — 1,150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers captured in the Lebanon war — that ignited the first intifada.
Despite a history of militants freed in swaps killing again, Israel has always negotiated to free its soldiers. Nimrod Kahn, 33, who runs a cookery school in Tel Aviv, says, however unpalatable the deal, Israelis expect their state to make this compromise. It is a guarantee for every high-school graduate expected to devote three years to military service.
“I don’t object to the releasing of these prisoners in principle; they would be released in a peace deal sooner or later. I object to this deal because it opens the gate for blackmail,” Kahn said. “But it’s expected our state will take responsibility for its soldiers. In Israel, the soldier is the holy cow – it cannot be slaughtered under any circumstances.”
See Related: Gilad Shalit Agreement Archive