By Mohammed AlNadi
On Tuesday October 18, 2011 a prisoner exchange deal was successfully carried out between Hamas and Israel for the first time. Since the capture of Gilad Shalit, Israel had been intractably headstrong on negotiating any deal with Hamas, and therefore, many attempts and mediations to broker an agreement failed.
On the one hand, however, the Israeli government was clearly caught in a dilemma, being under heavy pressure from the Israeli public, including Shalit’s family, demanding his release, and, at the same time, from those Israelis who rejected any deal, which, according to them, would secure the release of “terrorists” who had “blood on their hands.” On the other hand, Hamas always seemed unflinching and couldn’t lose but win, since it had nothing to lose.
For more than five years, the Palestinian people have suffered from countless Israeli incursions and military operations, which Israel constantly claimed were in search of Shalit, and which claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians. Add to this, a strangling blockade—termed as “illegal” and a “collective punishment” by almost all international and human rights organizations—was enforced on 1.6 million people in the Gaza Strip.
At the beginning, the “we will not negotiate with terrorists” rhetoric was dominant in Israeli officials’ speeches. But later, Israel came to realize, after more than five years, that any armed endeavor to retrieve Shalit would be unavailing, and that it should succumb to Hamas’s terms.
There were several incidents in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which kidnapped soldiers were exchanged for prisoners, and this always was the way to go. When Gilad Shalit was captured in 2006, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knew there was nothing to do except to negotiate with Hamas, and that the issue would go on to the next Netanyahu government. So he must have preferred to abdicate that responsibility, especially amidst continuing lobbying by thousands of Shalit supporters and his family, which set up a protest tent outside his residence, trying to push him to agree to Hamas’s demands. Olmert then fumblingly accused both parents of hampering any possible talks to release their son, because they were launching a huge media campaign.
The new Netanyahu government seemed enormously unmanageable in the talks that were brokered by the German mediator and Egypt as well and equivocally refused Hamas’s demands. Netanyahu himself was said to be “shocked” by the scope of concessions he would be making if he had agreed to Hamas’s terms, and then proposed what was called a “final offer” to the Palestinians, with absolutely poorer conditions. Hamas rejected the offer and made its position clear that Shalit won’t be released unless its demands are met.
Now the question is, doesn’t the fact that Israel surprisingly gave in to Hamas’s demands mark a historic victory for Hamas and a huge gain for the Palestinian people, and, at the same time, show Israel’s weakness? Still, one may argue that some Palestinian political prisoners like Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, who were initially named to be released, were not included in the final list; also, some of the released prisoners were either exiled to a number of countries or to the Gaza Strip. And, most importantly, several thousands of the Palestinian prisoners are still incarcerated behind Israel’s bars.
The shift of Israel’s stubborn stance on the deal five years ago to a more condescending one represents a humiliating blow to Israel’s big ego. The effect of this stunning knockdown was evident in Netanyahu’s first public statement as saying. “I would like to make it clear: We will continue to fight terrorism. Any released terrorist who returns to terrorism—his blood is upon his head. The State of Israel is different from its enemies: Here, we do not celebrate the release of murderers. Here, we do not applaud those who took life. On the contrary, we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life. This is the ancient tradition of the Jewish People.”
Right after Shalit was released. Netanyahu tried to look smart and convincing in front of the public when he said it was a compelling Jewish tradition to ransom a Jewish life even if at a high price. This also implies Netanyahu’s racist mentality and moral bankruptcy through vilifying the “released terrorist”. He obviously wanted to avoid any awkward situation before the Israeli people, among whom a considerable number thought he had given a heavy price, and that the government “conducted itself incorrectly” in the negotiations, while some other backed the deal. So he tried to contain the varying turnabout by emphasizing Israel’s commitment to cracking down on the released “miscreants”. Also, he deliberately meant to stir the public’s altruistic emotions when he said: “Citizens of Israel, today we are all united in joy and in pain. He tried to redeem himself when he reminded the public with “the pain of the families of the victims of terrorism” but “a leader finds himself alone and must make a decision. I considered – and I decided. Government ministers supported me by a large majority,” he maintained.
Furthermore, at the same time, he came to play the role of the “savior” since he was able to bring Israel’s boy home when he fatherly escorted him to his parent’s bosom. “I have brought your son back home,” said Netanyahu, addressing Shalit’s parents.
The 477 prisoners already released and the other remaining 550 to be released in two months, making a total of 1027, is indeed a good number, if we take into account the fact that a number of those prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment would have never released if such a deal didn’t take place. And I think it wouldn’t have been wise if Hamas turned the deal down because of some prisoners whom Israel deems out of the list. Those prisoners, unfortunately, will have to continue to steadfastly face the same fate of the rest of the prisoners, lead them and go on with their struggle against the Israeli Prison Service.
Exile definitely feels like another prison for those who were forcibly made to leave their families and homeland according to the terms of the deal, but still it’s better than staying in Israeli jails.
Regardless of the pros and cons of the deal, it was a momentous achievement by the Palestinian resistance. At least, it was enough to see the happiness of a 70 year old prisoner’s mother while embracing her son, who would never have been freed through the peace process.
– Mohammed AlNadi is Gaza-based English literature graduate. He works as a translator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.