Behind Israel-Hamas prisoner swap: Shalit family's influential campaign

Israel and Hamas are reportedly close to a prisoner swap deal that would bring home captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, thanks in no small part to his soft-spoken family's efforts to mobilize public pressure for his release.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Noam Shalit stands in front of cardboard cut-outs of his son, captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, during a protest calling for his release, outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, Monday.

The family of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit prodded Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu to the brink of an historic prisoner exchange with Hamas this week, camping outside his office when they sensed the deal was in danger. Then, with an Israeli counteroffer delivered to the Islamist group’s leaders in Gaza, they retreated.

For now.

The soft-spoken Shalit family – led by father Noam – has become a force to be reckoned with in Israel, politely but firming keeping up pressure for a deal. They have to walk a careful line, keeping their son at the forefront of public consciousness without making him such a prize that Hamas will raise the stakes for his release above what Israel is willing to accept.

“All the time, we have to figure out when [pressure] is helping and when it could hurt,” says Shimshon Liebman, a neighbor of the family and director of the family-led campaign to free Shalit. “And we also know that the other side is listening to us. We know that our pressure can cause damage.”

Back in March, during the final days of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s tenure, a several-day protest campaign on Shalit’s behalf was blamed for reportedly making Hamas more stubborn in its demands.

A 'gentle, but aggressive' family

The family-led campaign to free Shalit, complemented by a grass-roots movement with hundreds of volunteers, has persistently lobbied cabinet ministers, heads of state, and opinionmakers.

At different points since the 2006 kidnapping, they have successfully pressed Israel’s government to tighten its siege of Gaza and to switch from Egyptian to German mediators.

“This is not a family. This is a consortium. Noam Shalit can mobilize troops to demonstrate just with the power of his cellphone,” says Ronen Bergman, who authored the forthcoming history of Israel’s POW negotiations, “By Any Means Necessary.” “The need to execute the resumption of prisoners is so emotional that it’s driving this country crazy.”

The Shalit family enjoys a sympathetic image in the local press, which has described them as “anti-heroes” – “noble” and “gentle, but aggressive.” In a country where there’s a compulsory military conscription, most Israelis empathize with the plight of the family. The boy-like image of Sgt. Shalit has become ubiquitous on billboards and bumper stickers.

But sympathy without public pressure on the government for Shalit’s release won’t be enough, says Shlomo Goldwasser, whose son Ehud and another soldier were abducted two weeks after Shalit’s capture.

“To get something done, you need the public at your side. A family gets lots of sympathy from ministers, but sympathy won’t move them,” says Mr. Goldwasser, who has aided the Shalit family’s campaign. “If the public is with you then something will happen; if not, you’ll get sympathy and that’s it.”

Precedent for Shalit swap

After more than a day of nail-biting talks earlier this week about Hamas’s proposal for a prisoner exchange, Netanyahu sent the group a counteroffer.

The disagreement reportedly centers around the number of freed prisoners who will be expelled from the Palestinian territories – a condition Israel has placed on their release to mollify bereaved relatives of those killed by Palestinian militants, who remain opposed to freeing such militants for any reason.

Despite Israel’s all-consuming focus on counterterrorism, there are several precedents for such swaps. The bodies of Goldwasser’s son Ehud and fellow soldier Eldad Regev were returned to Israel in 2008 in a controversial swap with Hezbollah that freed a Lebanese militant responsible for killing several Israelis.

A recent poll found that 52 percent of Israelis support freeing Shalit at any cost, leaving the country far from united on the best approach to take. Netanyahu’s closest advisors and ministers are also reportedly divided.

The Shalit family’s cause is helped by collective guilt over the failure of Israel’s government to free Maj. Ron Arad, an airforce navigator captured in Lebanon in 1986. Israeli governments initially tried to negotiate his release, but he disappeared before a deal could be reached and is widely believed to be dead.

Public pressure for Shalit’s release has put Netanyahu, who came into office with a hard-line reputation, in an awkward place.

“He, who built his public career on ‘a firm stance against terror’ must now go back on his principles and free those who were responsible for murdering hundreds of Israelis,” wrote the center-left newspaper Haaretz in an editorial. “Nentanyahu must say, Enough. It’s time to cut to the chase, and end the suffering of Shalit and his family.”

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