Seeing the long awaited release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit is truly a positive development for a region wrought with constant turmoil. It has been five years since Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas and imprisoned in Gaza without any contact with family, friends, or the Red Cross. Both the Israeli government and Hamas have deemed the swap a victory for their side and have been determined to get as much political gain out of the situation as possible. Yet, there is great concern about the what will be the end result of the swap and what type of precedent this sets for future relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Although it is clear that all of those entities involved have achieved some benefit, it is important to also show the costs of the swap. The return of Shalit should be rejoiced by all, but what it means for the future is far from certain.
The final deal to swap Shalit for 1,027 convicted terrorists has been in the making for several years. Gerhard Conrad, a German official who mediated prior swaps between Israel and Hezbollah in the 90’s, was the first to attempt a dealt between the two parties. Although, Conrad’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful, it set the stage for what would ultimately be a final agreement. In the end, Egypt’s Major-General Murad Muwafi, the current Director of Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (EGID), played the lead role in finalizing the deal, showing that Egypt remains to an important regional power, even with the instability within the country. The first stage of the swap consists of Israel releasing 450 of the most controversial prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Then within two months 550 non-Hamas affiliated prisoners will be released. Of the 1,027 released prisoners, 164 will be exiled from the West Bank to Gaza, while 40 others are not allowed to live in either location and will be exiled abroad. Both the Israeli government and Hamas relented on previously impassable issues that led to the downfall of prior attempts to finalize a swap. Hamas no longer made the release of two of the most notorious terrorists a necessary condition for a final agreement. Abdullah Barghouti is a bomb maker responsible for a substantial number of Israeli deaths, while Ahmad Sa’adat was associated with the 2001 assassination of Israeli cabinet member Rehavam Ze’evi. Although the Israeli government has performed prisoner swaps in the past, it has never done so with so many high profile terrorists. Israel also changed its position on refusing to conduct negotiations that involve imprisoned Israeli citizens. As part of the deal, Israel released six Israeli Arabs. Both sides have made significant concessions in order to come to a final agreement, which has led to the release of Shalit and over 1,000 convicted terrorists.
Hamas’s acceptance to finalize a deal with Israel came as a surprise considering their continued unwillingness to accept even the simplest humanitarian gestures to ensure Shalit’s safety, such as allowing Red Cross officials examine Shalit’s status. So why did Hama’s decide to initiate the deal? Several recent events have played heavily into their decision to become more conciliatory. Up until recently, Hamas’s headquarters has been based in Syria, which was under heavy influence by Syrian and Iranian officials, who prevented Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshaal, from accepting any previous agreements in order to further inflame the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran uses the continual fighting between Arabs and Israelis to spread its influence to the Arab populace. Yet, the recent crackdown by the Syrian government and Iran’s decreased funding of the organization, led Hamas to seek a new location to settle its base of operations and find a new financial supporter. The Syrian crackdown has largely focused on the Sunni population, which consists of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an affiliate of Hamas. Therefore, they sought to relocate to Cairo, where the Muslim Brotherhood has recently gained much more political freedom as a result of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and appears be a significant political force in the upcoming Egyptian elections. Egyptian officials had two conditions for accepting Hamas into the country: Agree to reconciliation with Fatah, which it did this past May, and be more flexible on a swap to release Shalit. Therefore, the recent crackdown in Syria and the changing political landscape in Egypt played a significant role in Hama’s decision to accept a final deal.
What does Hama’s gain from the prisoner swap? The obvious benefit is the significant release of high profile terrorists from Israel, but there are many other strategic benefits to Hamas’s recent deal. By negotiating a final agreement with Israel and Egypt, Hamas looks like a state instead of a terrorist organization, giving itself greater legitimacy at a time when it has been becoming increasingly isolated and irrelevant. Also, by negotiating with a nation it considers to be an enemy, it gives the appearance of moderation and pragmatism, which has increased its domestic popularity, as well as its popularity amongst the neighboring Arab nations. Possibly the most important optic is the organizations ability to produce results, a strong criticism which has been leveled against its political rival, the PLO. A possible repercussion of the swap will undoubtedly be Hama’s leadership claiming that its use of terrorism, violence, kidnapping, and hostage taking is the most effective way to get Palestinian rights, unlike Fatah’s attempts to use diplomacy, which has not created a Palestinian state, halted Israel’s construction of settlements, or led to any prisoner releases on the magnitude of the Shalit swap. In fact, the U.N. bid for statehood led to economic repercussions, as a result of the U.S.’s decision to withhold its aid to the PLO. This will undoubtedly harm the PLO’s President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s recent rise in popularity from his unilateral attempt for gaining Palestinian statehood through the United Nations (U.N.) is being overshadowed by the highly publicized prisoner swap. Although, the U.N. attempt was a significant gesture, it was highly symbolic in nature, and will not produce a Palestinian state. Another strategic benefit from the prisoner swap is the improved ties to the new Egypt. This could eventually change the Egyptian militaries continued willingness to assist Israel with the blockade of Gaza and other security issues that are important to Israel. Also, with Hamas now being based in Cairo, the terrorist organization could become a growing force in the ever changing Egyptian political landscape. Hamas has achieved a wealth of benefits from the prisoner swap, which could translate into short and long-term strategic advantages.
The release of Shalit has been a continually contentious issue for Israeli officials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was faced with significant political pressure to find a way to bring Shalit home. When Israeli Prime Minster, Ehud Olmert, was presented with a similar deal for Shalit’s release, Netanyahu was an extremely vocal opponent of such action, so what made Netanyahu have a change of heart? Major demonstrations have been orchestrated in an attempt to get the Israeli government to act, creating an increasingly charged politically issue for the Netanyahu administration. The overwhelming political support for the deal was shown by the 26 out of 29 cabinet members voting in favor of the swap. Also. the Israeli ethos that the state should make sacrifices for any individual that the government expects to make sacrifices for the state is ingrained into the psyche of the Israeli population. There is a strong belief that no soldier should be left behind, dead or alive, an ideology that is stronger than the fear of terrorism. In fact, terrorist attacks have been dramatically reduced as a result of the cooperation between the Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank and the Israeli military. Since Israel has a conscription military, the Israeli population sees Shalit as a representation of all of the sons and daughters of Israel, all of which could be faced with the same horrendous circumstances that had befallen Shalit. Another strategic calculation that Netanyahu had to consider is the changing political environment in Egypt. The upcoming Egyptian elections is predicted to give the Muslim Brotherhood considerable political power, which would undoubtedly hamper any future attempts at a deal, based on the Brotherhood’s dissatisfaction with Egypt’s cooperative relationship with Israel. There is also great fear of a similar situation to the unsuccessful negotiation to release Israeli airman, Ron Arad, who was captured in 1986 and is believed to now be dead. The political considerations and the ever changing strategic environment resulting from the Arab Spring made Netanyahu more willing to make a deal with Hamas.
Israel, like Hamas, has garnered some not so obvious benefits from their acceptance to finalize a deal that go beyond the release of Shalit. The deal also may have eased the tension that has built up between Israel and Egypt as a result of the death of several Egyptian soldiers during Israel’s retaliation against the recent terrorist attacks that originated from within the Sinai and the recent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Israel’s begrudgingly strong stance against making any concessions, which has been criticized by the international community, has been tampered down by the swap, illustrating that Israeli officials do have the political will to make deals with its enemies for the greater good. In addition, the recent unilateral attempts by Abbas have proven to be at the very least a symbolically effective tool for the PLO, leaving the Israeli government with little in terms of a diplomatic response. By making the deal with Hamas, Israel has shown that it can also act unilaterally. Since the support Abbas has garnered for his recent diplomatic actions is being overshadowed, the swap could be a used as a way to pressure Abbas back to the peace process. The deal also comes at a time when the Netanyahu government is facing considerable dissatisfaction at home. Social protests are on the rise because of the overwhelming price of housing in Israel, increased political gridlock, no diplomatic progress with the Palestinians, and an ever increasing fear that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated from the international community. Finalizing a deal shows that the Netanyahu administration is responsive to the desires of Israeli populace and is working to further their societal aspirations. Therefore, the Israeli government has achieved some considerable benefits from the Shalit swap.
The final deal to release Shalit is long overdue and should be celebrated. There is great concern that so many terrorists have been released and will be a security threat to Israel. Yet, Israel has proven time and again that their counterterrorism operations are unrivaled and they can successfully combat the security threats that originate beyond their borders. Hopefully the deal shows that Hamas will become increasingly pragmatic when it deals with Israel, instead of using terrorism as its main strategy, although I do not have much faith that this will occur. Both sides have gained considerable benefits from the swap, but how it will translate in the long-term remains to be seen. For now, the swap has created jubilation for both sides, but how it will change the regional security environment is uncertain.