Israel is abuzz with a flurry of media reports on a possibly imminent prisoner exchange that could return captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to his parents after more than three years of captivity under Hamas. The deal would also release up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but Gazans are dismayed that a major condition Israel had previously said was linked to any Shalit deal now appears to be missing from the negotiations: Israel’s two-year economic blockade on the Gaza Strip.
Israel first tightened control of the tiny Palestinian enclave's borders in the aftermath of Sgt. Shalit’s capture in June 2006 – when Palestinian fighters seized the then 19-year-old corporal in a brazen cross-border raid – and completely closed its crossings with Gaza when Hamas violently ousted its rival Fatah in June 2007.
Since then, Israeli government officials have repeatedly said that any easing of the siege, which prohibits all commercial imports and exports into and from the territory, and severely limits travel for Palestinians, would depend on Hamas’s unconditional release of the soldier.
"The crossings [...] are operating at a minimum to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza," an Israeli political source told the Israeli daily Haaretz at a cabinet briefing earlier this year, according to the paper. "And they [the crossings] will remain so until Gilad Shalit is released."
But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza earlier this month that Israel’s blockade of the territory now has nothing to do with a possible Shalit deal. Israeli officials recently confirmed that lifting the blockade would not be part of any exchange.
The blockade has crushed the Gazan economy and forced 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people to rely on food aid, according to the United Nations.
'We know Shalit is not the main reason for the blockade'
The omission of the blockade from any deal has hampered the optimism of Gazans, who had hoped their economic plight would lessen with Shalit's release.
“We hope and we dream that the siege will be lifted with Shalit,” says Abu Mohamed, an unemployed Gazan at a street cafe here. “But we know Shalit is not the main reason for the blockade – Hamas is. So nothing will change.”
Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, says that Israel has no reason to lift the blockade with a prisoner exchange because of Hamas’ continued unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“The release of Shalit is an isolated incident, while Hamas is considered a hostile entity,” Mr. Inbar says. “And Israel has the right to close its borders to unfriendly neighbors.”
But others in Gaza think Shalit’s release, coupled with Hamas’ decision to halt rocket fire from the territory, will put international pressure on Israel to open the strip’s borders.
“If Shalit is released, it will remove the excuse Israel uses to keep Gaza under siege and carry out attacks,” says a Gaza-based lawyer who wished to remain anonymous because of his political affiliation. “Capturing Shalit was a huge mistake, it destroyed Palestinian society. But now that the rockets have stopped, and if Shalit is freed, I don’t think the Israelis will keep the situation like this much longer.”
Israel seeks exile for Palestinian prisoners freed under deal
The negotiations between Hamas and Israel, carried out indirectly through Egyptian officials and a German mediator, gained momentum after a one-minute “proof-of-life” video of Shalit was released in October, and according to media reports is now boiled down to specifics.
Under the reported deal, Hamas would exchange Shalit for roughly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails, some of them senior Hamas officials responsible for planning or carrying out violent attacks against Israelis.
According to sources on both sides of the talks, Israel would like to see many of the West Bank-based prisoners sent into exile in either Gaza or European or Arab countries, and is reluctant to release Palestinians convicted of terror attacks inside Israel.