In Israel, sentiment mixed on negotiations for Gilad Shalit release

Many Israelis have rallied around a Gilad Shalit release deal, but critics say an exchange of the captured soldier for Palestinian prisoners could cause new wave of violence.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A Palestinian man walks near a mural depicting captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza City November 23. Israel has softened its terms for a prisoner swap with Hamas and the two enemies are nearing a deal to exchange hundreds of Palestinian inmates for Shalit.

Yossi Zur's son was on his way back from school on a March day in 2003. But Asaf, then 16, never made it home. The Haifa city bus he was on was blown up by a Hamas suicide bomber, in an attack that killed 17 people and wounded 53.

Now, Mr. Zur is one of the activists at the forefront of a campaign to try to stop Israel from reaching a deal with Hamas that would involve the release of between 900 and 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit. And as the negotiations wear on, the Israeli public is showing mixed feelings over whether it feels like a wise trade.

"I'm not doing this because I'm looking for revenge. I know nothing will bring my son back," Mr. Zur said in a phone interview from his home in Haifa. "But I have three other sons and I want them to grow up safely in this country and don't want harm to come to them."

"I believe that releasing so many terrorists is going to do a lot of harm, most probably by creating a new wave of terrorism," he adds, "and we know many of these terrorists go back to the same kind of activity after they are released."

It's not as if Zur knows whether any of the people involved in planning the attack on Haifa's Bus 37 are on the list. Zur and other bereaved-parents' groups made an appeal to Israel's Supreme Court this week, requesting that the list of prisoners being considered for release be made public.

The Supreme Court rejected the request and sided with the security establishment, agreeing only to release the number of prisoners under consideration. The groups who had filed the request decried the decision as "disappointing and undemocratic."

At the same time, many Israelis have rallied around Shalit's fate and express support for his family members, who have become regular figures on the nightly news over the past few years – but especially so in the last few weeks. Various polls have indicated that a majority of Israelis support some kind of a prisoner exchange in return for Shalit.

Who's holding out on whom?

Public opposition to the deal, however, is only one of many factors affecting the speed of reaching an agreement, which was reported by both sides last week to be imminent. In recent days, leaders on both sides have blamed the other for holding up progress.

"The delay is not caused by the Israeli government but rather by the other side - there are internal disagreements within Hamas," Israeli President Shimon Peres told students during a visit to a boarding school Wednesday. "If Hamas returns to its original demands, which are already very high, we will see Gilad Shalit return home."

Various local Arab media have been reporting that the deal is close, but that Israel is holding back on 15 prisoners Hamas wants released.

The Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper and the Maan news agency are reporting that Shalit will be flown from Gaza to Cairo by helicopter and held until the release of all the Hamas prisoners is completed, as a guarantee that Israel won't renege on its end of the deal. Other Arab media reports in the past 24 hours indicated that Shalit was transferred out of the Gaza Strip when senior Palestinian officials left for Egypt last week, but Hamas officials denied that report's veracity on Thursday.

In another factor of the debate, Israel apparently has demanded that some of the prisoners be expelled from the country. Among those whose names have been discussed is Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader in Fatah who was convicted by an Israeli court in 2004 of five counts of murder. Mr. Barghouti has been cited as a potential successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who says he will not seek reelection next year.

Differences between Hamas officials in Gaza, Damascus?

Several reports suggested that the hold-up in progress could be due to differences of approach between Hamas officials in Gaza and Damascus. The two have often been split before, with the "outside" leadership of Hamas taking a harder-line position that that of leaders inside Gaza.

Prisoner swaps have always been controversial in Israel, and the public's ideals for dealing with issue have some contradictory elements.

One the one hand, the military's ethos says that no soldier should be left behind, and even soldiers' remains have been brought home in exchange for the release of several hundred Palestinian and Lebanese nationals held in Israeli jails. On the other, many politicians have called for Israel not to release prisoners "with blood on their hands."

Indeed, Israelis seem unsure of whom to support first: the parents who have lost children in waves of violence that gripped this land at the beginning of the decade, or the parents who would like to see their son home before the decade is up.

"There is no doubt about it: When it comes to Gilad Shalit, Israel has lost its senses and good judgment," journalist Ari Shavit wrote in last week's Ha'aretz. "Every possible mistake has been made. Every emotional weakness has come to the fore. A failed government, a hasty media and a confused public has made the Shalit affair insufferable. Gilad has become an obsession, a focus for a national pathology."

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