Israel proved once again just how much it values the lives of its soldiers when it released 20 female Palestinian prisoners Friday in exchange for a videotape. The footage, which was verified by Israeli intelligence officials, shows Israeli Sergeant Gilad Shalit alive and well as recently as two weeks ago, more than 1,000 days after he was captured by the Palestinian militant group Hamas and dragged into the Gaza Strip.
Even by the standards of the Israeli army, which makes every effort to retrieve its fallen comrades — dead or alive — from the battlefield, Shalit’s fate has taken on extraordinary importance. Following his capture along the Israel-Gaza border in June 2006, Israel has launched three major incursions into Gaza, with one of the main goals being the rescue of Shalit. Instead, the offensives killed 18 Israelis and around 1,700 Palestinians — and Shalit remains in enemy hands. Hamas also has not allowed the Red Cross to visit Shalit in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and the last sign that he was alive, until now, was a handwritten letter to his parents in June 2008. The fate of the captured soldier continues to tug at heartstrings in Israel, where military service is compulsory. The basketball-loving 23-year-old has almost become every mother’s son.
Not surprisingly, the pressure on Israeli politicians to rescue Shalit has been intense. Before he left office in March, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attempted a last-minute push to gain Shalit’s freedom by offering to release Palestinian prisoners in return for the soldier, but negotiations between the two sides failed. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came into power, he appointed a new chief negotiator and brought in German mediators to help the Egyptians already on the case.
But while they’ve been working diligently to free Shalit, Israeli politicians have also been wary of appearing too eager to negotiate for his return. The price Hamas has demanded for his release is high: 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom Israel considers to be dangerous terrorists. Hamas also wants Israel to lift its blockade of the territory before the next Palestinian elections, tentatively set for early next year. But Israel fears that giving in to the demands on the prisoners will encourage Hamas to capture more soldiers in the future. And as much as the Israeli public is clamoring for Shalit’s return now, people could turn on the government if it accepts Hamas’ terms, especially when it becomes clear how many dangerous men are back on the streets.
A similar thing happened last summer after Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group, exchanged the bodies of two dead Israeli soldiers for the release of five militants, including Samir Kuntar, who was in jail for the killing of a 4-year-old girl. The celebration that greeted Kuntar when he returned to Lebanon, which included a televised red carpet reception attended by the full Lebanese cabinet, disgusted Israelis and dredged up memories of the government’s failures during the 2006 war with Hizballah.
But the release of the videotape Friday could signal that Hamas is ready to cut a deal. Though the group survived Israel’s last incursion in January with its military infrastructure intact, it is under increasing pressure from Palestinians to show that its defiance of Israel has been worth the cost of Palestinian lives and the destruction of the Gaza Strip. And ironically, the release of Shalit, if it eventually happens, could increase pressure on Israel to talk seriously about the final status of a Palestinian state, a subject that until now the Netanyahu government has avoided. Dodging final status talks has been easy enough when Hamas was firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and Hamas and Fatah were feuding. But now that Hamas has stopped its rocket fire and the two Palestinian parties are talking again — along with a possible step forward in the return of Shalit — Netanyahu is going to have few excuses for President Barack Obama when the U.S. presses for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks this fall.