With Gilad Shalit prisoner swap done, Israelis and Palestinians debate its impact

Now that Gilad Shalit is back in Israel and the Palestinian prisoners have been released, Israelis weigh the potential cost of the deal and Palestinians examine how it shifts the Hamas-Fatah split.

Sharif Karim/Reuters
Palestinian children wave their national flags as they push a mock prison at the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, to celebrate the release of Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel on Tuesday.

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An intricate prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas is mostly finished, with Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit back on Israeli soil after five years in captivity by Hamas and most of the 477 Palestinian prisoners scheduled to be released today now in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.

The dual release has been contested on both sides – by Palestinians angry that Hamas did not secure the freedom of some high-profile prisoners, and by Israelis who are fearful and also angry about the release of people responsible for the deaths of Israelis in terrorist attacks. Regional media have been flooded with opinion pieces picking apart the deal and explaining what it means for the future of the two populations.

Despite their fears, 79 percent of Israelis supported the deal, according to a poll by the Dahaf Institute. And 50 percent of respondents said they were worried about the security situation, The Jerusalem Post reports.

The left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, whose opinion pages are typically critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, mostly carried op-eds and columns heralding the deal, though acknowledging the security concerns. Bradley Burston, among the most vocal of Netanyahu's critics in the press, wrote of the deal in glowing terms, saying that it showed the kind of convictions that have been lacking in recent years.

On the face of it, the exchange is preposterous, in some ways, borderline suicidal. … The deal to bring Gilad Shalit back to his family is painful to Israelis bereaved by terror. It is, by any measure, chillingly dangerous.

And it was the right thing to do.

The deal is a remnant of an Israel which is fast disappearing. It is a remnant of a particular brand of quiet, exceptional courage. It is an expression of a national character that goes generally ignored in a media environment which prizes the extreme over the honorable. It is evidence of a people true to values which time and sectarian agendas may appear to have diluted and erased.

The deal for Gilad Shalit is a remnant of a promised land that – to those everyday people who donate their very youth, their very lives, in order to defend it – still believes it important to keep its promises.

Awareness that the deal is "chillingly dangerous" is articulated many times over in the Israeli media. In a column for the right-leaning Jerusalem Post, Isi Liebler writes that typically tough Israel has once again revealed its "Achilles' heel" and emboldened voices for extremism – and that the practice of releasing hundreds or thousands of Palestinians in exchange for a handful of Israelis is admirable, but unsustainable.

In such an environment the government must gird itself for the future. We must never again permit the deliverance of one Israeli – either soldier or citizen – to jeopardize our national security.

We must recognize that the concept that “we must pay any price” is unsustainable. A state under siege must not allow itself to be subjected to blackmail and extortion by terrorists.

Despite its concessions on prisoners, that Hamas was able to force Israel to negotiate with the militant group and secure a deal is being viewed as vindication for the group and a blow to the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who until recently was riding a large wave of support for his bid for United Nations membership. National heroes – 500,000 Gazans are expected at the rally in Gaza City to welcome prisoners home, according to Haaretz – will trump an ambiguous diplomatic success, writes Tony Karon in Time.

Hamas' achievement in freeing some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prison is a more tangible gain, in Palestinian eyes, than the hypothetical statehood amid continued occupation being pursued by Abbas at United Nations. Palestinian society doesn't regard these men and women as criminals, but rather fighters in the national cause – a peace agreement with the Palestinians would ultimately require the release of all Palestinians who remain in Israeli custody, even if convicted of acts of terrorism.

Hamas is aware it has hit on a strategy that could work again. On Monday, the group's West Bank leader, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, told Haaretz that the remaining prisoners being held by Israel provide an incentive to kidnap again. More than 4,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons.

"I don't know whether more soldiers will be abducted," he told Haaretz. "But so long as Palestinian prisoners continue to suffer in prisons, there will be an incentive to free them via any available means. I urge the government of Israel to release the prisoners in order to put an end to this whole issue. This is an issue that creates considerable tension."

The Palestinian Authority is concerned about the possibility outlined by Mr. Yousef, and of armed resistance becoming the default strategy – a strategy that President Abbas and his government have forsworn, Tom Perry writes in an analysis for Reuters published on the website for Palestinian news agency Maan.

Privately, even Abbas' allies are concerned that the swap boosts the "logic of resistance" – or armed struggle against Israel – at the expense of his non-violent strategy built on negotiations and, most recently, the diplomatic thrust for wider recognition of statehood.
"This deal has definitely improved the public position of Hamas and the perception of resistance," said one member of the Abbas administration. "The success of this deal sends the wrong message to the public."

[Lebanese militant group Hezbollah] said the deal had "toppled once and for all the delusions of those who believe in the possibility of progress or the recovery of rights through negotiations or petitioning the international community".

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