BICOM Analysis: Freeing Gilad Shalit
June 28, 2010
- The four year anniversary of the abduction of Gilad Shalit, and the relaxation of restrictions on the Gaza border crossings, has brought renewed vigour and urgency in Israel to the campaign for his release.
- The desire to bring about the return of Shalit unites Israelis, but beneath that unity lie vexed questions. The danger for the campaigners is that in pressuring the government, they might play into Hamas’s hands. The dilemma for the government is that in meeting Hamas’s demands, they will strengthen the extremist Palestinian camp and will release individuals that are likely to threaten Israel again.
- The question of agreeing an exchange with Hamas, following on from the relaxation of the border crossings, is also interlinked with the question of whether Israel is acquiescing in the creeping legitimisation of the Hamas regime, and the entrenchment of the division within the Palestinian camp.
- Israel will look to the international community to make clear to Hamas that the continued captivity of Shalit is unacceptable, and undermines their ambition to be recognised as a legitimate political player.
Whilst much of the world’s principal concerns with regard to Gaza relate to flotilla incident, and the question of the blockade, on the fourth anniversary of the capture of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli discourse is overwhelmed by questions relating to securing his release. The Israeli soldier has been held hostage in Gaza for the past four years and negotiations to secure his release through a prisoner exchange have repeatedly failed.
The campaign to release Gilad, led by his parents Noam and Aviva, was renewed with vigour in the last few days. The recent relaxation of the restrictions on the border crossings has added a sense of urgency to their campaign, with the fear that as the pressure is being eased on Hamas, their son has been left out of the equation. They aim to push the Prime Minister to reach an agreement that will release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners involved in terrorism in return for their son.
The desire to bring home Shalit unites Israelis, but underneath that unity lie vexed questions. Should terrorists be released to bring Shalit home? Does public campaigning for Shalit’s release play into the hands of Hamas? And does making a deal with Hamas contribute to a creeping legitimisation of the Hamas regime in Gaza? This analysis examines the debates currently taking place in Israel around these question.
The campaign to bring Gilad home
On the morning of 27 June Gilad Shalit’s parents began a 12 day march from their home in northern Israel to establish a camp outside the Prime Minister’s home. They have camped there before, but have pledged that this time they will not leave without their son. The family are backed by an enormous wave of public sympathy. In a small country, where most families have a member serving in the army or reserves, Israelis identify very personally with the Shalit family and are aware it could be their son, or themselves. Because nearly all Israelis are conscripted for 2 to 3 years at the age of 18, there is a core ethos in Israeli society about protecting the soldiers and bringing them home. In the case of Shalit, this ethos clashes with the principal of not compromising with terrorists.
The issue is overwhelming the local media, and appears to have sparked something akin to a circulation war between the two largest daily papers. Last week, the Ma’ariv newpaper, announced in an editorial that it was backing the family’s campaign. Yoav Tzur, the paper’s editor, wrote, ‘We in Ma’ariv are not trying to conceal the high price of the release. We are only saying that there is no choice. That the time has come to make the tough decision’. Their rival paper, Yediot Ahronot, led its flagship Friday edition with an interview with Tami and Yuval Arad, the wife and daughter of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was taken captive in Southern Lebanon in 1986 and whose fate became a mystery. Among the many campaign posters for the release of Shalit is a picture of Gilad alongside a picture of Ron Arad and the words: ‘Is Gilad still alive? We cannot waste time’. The campaign message is clear. Do not let the story of Shalit repeat that of Ron Arad.
The campaign has had an international dimension also. Noam Shalit marked the fourth anniversary in Rome, where the lights of the Coliseum were switched off in show of solidarity. On Friday campaigners demonstrated at the embassies of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in Tel Aviv. However, the clear focus of the family’s campaign is against the Israeli Government.
The dilemmas of seeking a deal
Even though the family’s campaign has massive public support, it is not uncontroversial. Whilst Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed only sympathy to the family, it was reported last week that Hagai Hadas, Israel’s negotiator in the Shalit case told the family that their public campaign plays into the hands of Hamas. Hamas exploits Israel’s democratic culture and public opinion to put pressure on the government to meet their demands. The fear is that the more Hamas perceive the Israeli government to be under pressure, the more they are likely to raise their demands. They have made their own attempts to directly manipulate the Israeli public, cynically issuing an animated film in April depicting Noam Shalit walking the streets, betrayed by the unfulfilled promises of Israeli leaders, until as an old man, his son is returned to him in a coffin.
Polls show that most Israelis are willing to see murderers released to bring home Shalit. But there are voices that warn that there has to be a limit to the price Israel will pay. Israeli security officials state that 63% of Hamas prisoners released in past exchanges have returned to violence. Releasing prisoners threatens to undermine Israeli deterrence and incentivise future hostage taking.
After initially refusing to negotiate with Hamas, in the last couple of years there have been several failed attempts to make a deal. The last major effort came in December, when Israel agreed to release 450 prisoners in exchange for Shalit, and 550 more as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptians. However, Israel would not agree to release the most serious offenders. These include the organisers of attacks such as the Park Hotel massacre in 2002, and the attack on the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv in 2001. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also strongly opposed to the releasing top Hamas military leaders into the West Bank, and wanted some of the individuals sent to Gaza or abroad. Hamas leaders were reportedly divided about whether to accept the German mediated proposals, with Gaza based Hamas leaders more keen to compromise than the external leadership in Damascus.
With Hamas having withstood pressure applied on them up till now, there are those in Israel looking for additional forms of leverage against them, as opposed to pressuring the Israeli government. One proposal to go before the Knesset is a law that will withdraw privileges currently enjoyed by Hamas prisoners held in Israeli prisons, such as family visits, access to TV, and opportunities to study. They would be allowed only what is required by international law.
The bigger diplomatic questions
The campaign for Shalit’s release has been given greater urgency by the recent flotilla incident, and the subsequent relaxation of Israeli restrictions on goods entering Gaza. Noam Shalit reacted by asking where his son fitted into the change of policy, saying, ‘There are the few tools Israel has [to contend with Hamas]. This was one of the tools, and now that the siege has been broken it is lost’. Whilst the policy was controversial, it was backed by many Israelis as one of the few points of leverage against the Hamas regime.
The relaxation of the border restrictions has changed the equation which linked the question of Shalit, with the question of access to Gaza, and Palestinian reunification. Previously the Egyptians, who for some time mediated between Israel and Hamas on the Shalit issue, linked the deal to the issue of Palestinian reunification. They did not want Hamas to take all the credit for the exchange deal, and would prefer to have seen it come in the context of a reunification between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Egypt also wanted to see the relaxation of the border crossings come about as part of a Palestinian reunification agreement. The Americans too were concerned that an exchange deal would strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian moderate camp led by Abbas. When a deal looked close last December, the US worked with Egypt, Israel and the PA to draw up corresponding Israeli gestures to Abbas that would mitigate the damage done by returning prisoners into the hands of Hamas.
Now Egyptian officials state that Egypt has dropped their attempts to link the Shalit issue to the question of Palestinian unity. Similarly, following the flotilla incident, the international concern to improve the circumstances in Gaza has overcome some of the concern about strengthening Hamas. The US and European powers have pushed Israel to relax its border restrictions, and Egypt has also done so on its border.
This points to a creeping acceptance that the Hamas regime cannot be displaced, nor the Palestinian division resolved, in the foreseeable future. The fear for the family of Gilad Shalit is that this shift in the dynamics will become entrenched without progress on the question of Gilad’s release. The Israeli government has to consider that it may contribute to Hamas’s legitimisation by making a deal with them.
At the fourth anniversary of the capture of Gilad Shalit, those campaigning for his release face a difficult situation. With the pressure on Hamas eased somewhat following the flotilla incident, they are focusing their campaign on the Israeli government. The family is trying to build a wave of public support so great that the government will have to pay Hamas’s price to bring Shalit home. The risk is that by putting pressure on the Israeli government, they play into Hamas’s hands by increasing the price demanded for Shalit’s release even further. The danger for the Israeli government is that by making a deal with Hamas, it boosts their military capabilities and their political position vis-à-vis Mahmoud Abbas, and contributes to a gradual de-facto acceptance of the Hamas regime in Gaza.
In this context, it is important that international powers, with which Hamas wants to engage, continue to make clear that Hamas’s ambition to be recognised as a legitimate political player will not be realised so long as they continue to flout the norms and values of the international community.