Is freedom near for captive Israeli soldier?

Hamas says that Gilad Shalit could be released in a week, but terms of a deal with Israel keep shifting.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Prisoner: Comrades of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (pictured) called for his release at a Tel Aviv rally last month.
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More than two years after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid, he is being used more than ever as a pawn in the battle between Israel, Hamas, and Fatah over the future of the impoverished coastal strip.

On Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that calmed fighting along Gaza's border should be used to push for Mr. Shalit's return. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar said a prisoner swap in exchange for Shalit, believed to be alive and held inside Gaza, could conclude within a week.

But the reality remains complex and ever-changing. Hamas vacillates between suspending and reopening Egyptian-led negotiations over the fate of the soldier, and talks are now caught up in the terms of the Israel-Hamas truce and stymied by the internal Palestinian power struggle between rivals Hamas and Fatah.

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As part of the cease-fire deal, Israel was to gradually open Gaza's borders in return for progress on the repatriation of Shalit. But, until Shalit is released, "there won't be anything even close to normality with Gaza's [border] crossings," says Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

That creates problems for Hamas, which is trying both to improve conditions for Gazans while maintaining its hard line against Israel. Hamas is demanding the release of some 450 Palestinian fighters – many serving time on murder charges – in return for Shalit. And in a July 28 interview with the Monitor, Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar says Hamas would have no problem "closing the file" on Shalit permanently if Israel did not improve its offer.

After making progress, negotiations hit a snag following the July 16 Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap in which Israel turned over the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters plus five Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Since then, speculation rose that either Israel lowered the price it would pay to retrieve Shalit because it did not want to be seen "losing" in both deals, or Hamas increased its demands after Israel released the terrorist Samir Kuntar as part of the Lebanon trade.

An agreement was further complicated when Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve the PA if Israel released jailed Hamas ministers in an agreement over Shalit.

Mr. Abbas is concerned that a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas would aid the Islamist group in consolidating its hold over Gaza, as well as making inroads toward controlling the West Bank. Dissolving the PA, and returning to Israel total responsibility for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, is perhaps the one trump card Abbas can still play in his negotiations with Israel as he is increasingly viewed by Palestinians as ineffectual.

But Abbas's poor standing has not translated into Hamas popularity gains in Gaza. Nearly two months after the cease-fire with Israel, little has improved in the lives of Gazans.

As part of the June 19 cease-fire agreement, Israel was to gradually ease its blockade of Gaza. But since then, the quantity of fuel, cement, food, and other raw materials has seen only a "marginal" increase, says Phillippe Lazzarini, the head of office for the United Nations agency that coordinates humanitarian affairs in the West Bank and Gaza.

"There is a growing frustration among the population because they cannot feel the dividend of the truce on their daily life," Mr. Lazzarini says. The one significant improvement, he added, was the security situation, as both sides were holding their fire for the most part.

Though fuel imports have increased, the amount of gasoline flowing into Gaza is only 18 percent the estimated need, according to the UN. The amount of diesel fuel available is 55 percent of the estimated need.

The fuel and material shortages in Gaza, along with the lack of access to the outside world, have contributed to the 45 percent unemployment rate reported by the UN for July – the highest in the world.

"Nothing has changed," says Eyad Jamal Roopa, who previously imported perfumes from Lebanon but is now unemployed. Mr. Roopa spends his days sitting with two friends in front of his closed shop in the al-Shati Refugee Camp on the northern Gaza coast. "We expected the crossings would be open, the siege would be lifted, and we would have a life. And none of that happened."

Israeli authorities say they were slow in ramping up deliveries of goods because rockets were still being fired from Gaza in the early days of the truce. "We chose closings as a nonviolent response to the violations of the quiet," says Mr. Regev.

The agreement reached with Hamas via Egypt outlined steps that Hamas continues to violate by smuggling "qualitative military materials" into Gaza from Egypt, he says.

Though primarily blaming Israel and the United States for the worst living conditions anyone can remember, Gazans unaffiliated with Hamas charge that the Islamist group has failed to deliver an improvement in their lives.

"There is no freedom to talk or to work because of the Hamas security forces," says Zuhir al-Najjar, a documentary filmmaker from Rafah. "If I say something [Hamas] doesn't like, it's a big problem for me.… Every day, every moment, Hamas gets stronger."

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