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Oct 12, 2011 | 03:21 GMT

5 mins read

Israelis, Palestinians Agree to Prisoner Swap for Gilad Shalit

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Israel and Hamas announced late Oct. 11 that they had struck a deal for the Palestinian militant group to hand over captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Israel's release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Several aspects of the deal raise questions, including the implications for Hamas’ future relationship with both Syria and Egypt, as well as the reasons behind the timing of the agreement. The most important factor, however, would seem to be Egypt's role as the key mediator for the negotiations.
The Israeli Cabinet voted early Oct. 12 to accept a deal reached with Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Hamas on a prisoner exchange for Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was abducted more than five years ago by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid. In a deal negotiated in Cairo and mediated by Egypt, Hamas will return Shalit in exchange for Israel's release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. News of the deal, kept secret until late Oct. 11, was first broken by Saudi media outlet Al Arabiya and confirmed shortly thereafter by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he had given Israeli negotiators the go-ahead to begin finalizing the agreement on Oct. 6, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal said in a speech that Israel had agreed to turn over 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including 27 women and 315 sentenced to life terms, and a spokesman for Hamas' armed wing, the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said two-thirds of the prisoners are serving lengthy terms. The exchange will take place over two stages, with more than 400 to be released within a week and the rest within two months. An exchange for that many Palestinian prisoners is not normally a politically easy thing to do in Israel. The country's far right opposes the release of any Palestinians jailed for violence against Israelis, and the sheer numerical disproportion of the exchange has raised concerns across the political spectrum that deals such as the one for Shalit could provide incentive for more such abductions, especially of soldiers. However, there is widespread public support for any deal for Shalit's release, as evidenced by the Cabinet's 26-3 vote in favor of the agreement. Only Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon voted against the deal, though several prominent Israeli officials — Netanyahu included — publicly expressed their reservations about supporting it. Contrary to initial reports, the most high-profile Palestinian prisoners said to be on the verge of inclusion in the exchange — Marwan Barghouti, Abdullah Barghouti, Ahmed Sadaat, Ibrahim Ahmed and Abbas Sayed — will not be released, according to an interview with Yoram Cohen, chief of Israeli security agency Shin Bet. Marwan Barghouti's potential release had created the biggest controversy, as he is currently serving five life sentences for his role in the deaths of several Israelis during the al-Aqsa intifada that broke out in 2000. During the interview, Cohen echoed the concerns of Israeli political officials and said his country makes no guarantees that it would not target these individuals in the future. The timing of the deal for Shalit's release is notable. There have been several instances in which a deal for his release seemed imminent only to be scuttled at the last minute; the most serious of these was in 2009. One important factor for Israel's agreement to this deal was the Israeli leadership's wariness of the Middle East's uncertain political climate in the wake of the Arab Spring. In his public announcement of the deal, Netanyahu said, "I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all. It is very possible that this window of opportunity, that opened because of the circumstances, would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all." Both Netanyahu and Hamas officials spoke highly of the Egyptian government's mediation, with Hamas specifically thanking new Egyptian intelligence chief Murad Mowafi for his contributions. This raises the question of what Israel and Hamas each agreed to give Egypt in exchange for its help. It is likely not a coincidence that earlier Oct. 11, Israel agreed to apologize formally to Egypt for the deaths of six members of its security forces at the hands of Israeli troops who were responding to the Aug. 18 Eilat attacks, an event that caused Egyptians to storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 9. Also, Israel's recent acquiescence to Egyptian desires to deploy more troops to the zones of the Sinai Peninsula restricted under the terms of the Camp David Accords makes more sense in light of the Shalit deal. However, this does not mean Israel was not in a good position to bargain with Egypt, as shown by its recent public criticism of Egypt's inability to police the Sinai. Egypt, which shares with Israel a strategic interest in containing Hamas, had reasons to facilitate the deal, so Shalit's release may have been more mutually beneficial to Egypt and Israel than it may appear. As for Hamas, it, too, has been affected by the Arab Spring. The current instability in Syria, headquarters for Hamas' Politburo, has put the militant group's future there in question, with Hamas officials rumored to be considering relocating to Cairo. Cohen himself said that Hamas "had to show flexibility as we did," and that "what happened in Syria created instability and a need for Egyptian backup." Meshaal's announcement of the Shalit deal was made from Damascus, indicating that the group will remain in Syria — for now. But Cohen's words, in addition to the heavy role played by Egypt in the negotiations, does add credence to the possibility that the group is in fact seriously considering a move to Cairo. Both Egypt and Israel would prefer such a move — the former wanting firmer control over Hamas, the latter wanting to see less influence over the group from Syria and its ally, Iran — so it is possible Hamas may have agreed to relocate in exchange for help from the Egyptian regime.

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