Five years, three months, two weeks, and three days ago, Hamas militants from Gaza tunneled under the sequestered Strip's border with Israel and popped up near the Kerem Hashalom crossing, where they attacked an Israeli tank, killing two crewmembers and injuring five. The militants grabbed Corporal Gilad Schalit from the tank, and escaped back into the Gaza Strip with him.
He had been a captive of Hamas ever since, held in undisclosed locations and prevented by his captors from receiving the most basic internationally-recognized human rights, including visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose requests for access were repeatedly rebuffed on the grounds that such access would betray the location where he was being held) and contact with his family, while Hamas demanded exorbitant prices for his return, including the release of 1,500 prisoners - among whom were several terrorists and murderers - from Israeli prison.
This week, a groundbreaking deal was announced between Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government and Hamas that will reportedly - finally - bring the French-Israeli citizen Schalit home. The price is extremely high: over 1,000 prisoners, including many Hamas militants, will be returned to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip in two waves of repatriation.
While this deal weakens Israel's defenses and emboldens Hamas, it also may have been a necessary move. Let's look at why.
The first important detail of the Israel-Hamas deal is its makeup: it is basically the same deal Hamas demanded five years ago in exchange for the kidnapped soldier’s release. So why did Israel allow one of its soldiers to languish in the captivity of terrorists for over half a decade if it was eventually going to agree to the same terms demanded by Schalit’s captors at the time of his abduction?
The answer to this is simple, if unsatisfying: the facts on the ground changed. After playing a form of hardball for over sixty months and largely rebuffing Hamas’s demands (though Israel did trade a smaller number of prisoners for proof that Schalit was still alive), the reality in the region – and in Egypt moreso than anywhere else – changed to such a degree that Netanyahu’s government became convinced that this may be the last chance to save the life of Israel’s captured citizen and to return him home.
Egypt has long been a key presence in the negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the Schalit issue. The revolution there this winter and spring was unsettling, but for all the fanfare that accompanied the deposing of Hosni Mubarak months just before the 30th anniversary of his rise to power, the Egyptian government did not significantly change in his wake, at least with regard to the Schalit talks and Egypt’s involvement as a mediator. Israel became convinced that that could change very soon, with elements acceding to positions of power within the new government that could – and likely would – derail the effort to return Schalit for the foreseeable future, if not forever. It has been reported that Hamas moderated its own stance on the prisoners-for-Schalit swap, though it should be noted that their “moderation” consisted primarily of changing some of the names on the list of prisoners that it demanded in return for the abducted soldier.
This deal, and the release of over 1,000 prisoners that it entails, will finally bring home a French-Israeli citizen who has languished in captivity for over half a decade, with no internationally recognized human rights being verifiably observed on his behalf; for that, we can all be happy. However, the repatriation of so many prisoners – many of them hardened terrorists – is inarguably detrimental to Israel’s security. However, it could be worse, as Yaakov Katz writes at the Jerusalem Post:
A significant number of the terrorists will be deported to the Gaza Strip. While this will be a boost to Hamas and other terrorist organizations there, it will have less of an effect on Israel than if they were to be released to the West Bank. There, they would be able to help Hamas and Islamic Jihad reestablish their terror infrastructure, which has been severely damaged in recent years by the IDF and Palestinian Authority security forces.
Egypt also successfully used as leverage the ongoing revolution in Syria and Hamas’s fears that it will have to evacuate its headquarters in Damascus if Bashar Assad falls.
I also largely agree with Katz’s conclusion – both parts:
While Schalit's release is without a doubt dramatic, so is the day after. Hamas will be strengthened by this deal, will have brought about the release of 1,000 prisoners and will be able to use this as leverage in future reconciliation talks with Fatah, as well as in gaining popularity ahead of Palestinian Authority elections, if they are ever held. Israel will need to work to ensure that PA President Mahmoud Abbas does not view this as a blow and will still be willing to renew negotiations with Israel.
The boost to Hamas will not just be for its morale but also for its operational abilities. Kidnappings, Hamas and Hezbollah have learned, pay off. They will likely try again.
The reaction to the Schalit deal by Israel partisans is not entirely positive (here are two decent examples: ONE | TWO). However, the only bone I have to pick with Katz’s conclusion is the lip service he pays to the importance of Mahmoud Abbas’s willingness to continue in “peace negotiations” with Israel that can be characterized from some points of view as little more than an extended charade.
With the return of Gilad Schalit, Hamas has lost one of its biggest bargaining chips with Israel. Thus, key points to look at going forward, as we determine whether this trade was worth its cost, will be what effect the deal has on Hamas’s strength and on its relationship with the more moderate (not to be confused with unconditionally moderate) Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, as well as what changes come to Egypt in the next few months (and whether it can be determined that they would indeed have derailed any possibility of negotiating a better deal for Schalit’s return).
These are open questions, which certainly won’t be answered overnight. All we can do at this point is be glad that Staff Sergeant Gilad Schalit is returning home, and watch carefully to see what comes next, knowing full well that not all of it will be positive.