Gilad Shalit release expected

25 11 2009

Gilad Shalit

One of the most famous POWs in Israeli history is expected to be released in the near future.

Gilad Shalit, a soldier in the Israeli army, was captured by Palestinian militants in June 2006. Rumors circulated about him, but it was unclear for a long time if he was even still alive. Then in early October of this year, after nearly 1200 days in captivity, a video surfaced of Shalit. He appeared much slimmer than his pre-capture photos, bordering on gaunt, but looked otherwise healthy.

In a meeting with Shalit’s father, Noam, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Metzger told him “I have a feeling Gilad will be lighting Hanukkah candles with us in two weeks’ time.”

Intense negotiations between Israel and Hamas are currently underway using German mediators. Hamas is expected to received up to 450 prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

There seems to be a deal in place right now, at least in principle, but the final negotiations are proving tough due the nature of some of the prisoners that Hamas is demanding in return.

Among the most controversial are Abdullah al-Barghouti and Ibrahim Hamed, two Hamas brigade commanders.  The pair have each been sentenced to dozens of life sentences and their release is less than popular with the Israeli public.

Many in Israel are weary about handing over so many prisoners in exchange for the return of one Israeli soldier. Critics say that this creates an enormous incentive for militants to try again.

Lebanon’s Hizballah is particularly astute at this transaction, having secured the return of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners in exchange for a handful of captured Israeli soldiers, or in some cases just their remains.

This latest twist in the Shalit saga falls against the backdrop of a crumbling Palestinian political representation. Just recently, Palestine’s moderate Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would not be seeking reelection in January. Many have taken this as a sign of complete apathy in the pro-Western faction of Palestinian leadership in the face of zero progress being made by the Obama administration in its efforts to halt Israeli settlements so negotiations could begin.

Instead, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Israel recently with only a pledge to slow the settlement process. Clinton hailed the pledge as a victory, but the result laid bare both the Israeli commitment to the peace process as well as the United States’ waning influence on Israeli policy makers.

With elections coming up, Hamas may be trying to win a major public relations coup that it could use to expand its influence into West Bank, which is currently a rival Fatah stronghold.

This story is still unfolding, but the latest news on the negotiations is that they have stalled, with the hurdle being a handful of controversial prisoners being demanded by Hamas. Shalit’s release would be a major victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as for Hamas, which could see the return of hundreds of captured Palestinians.

It’s strange that something that didn’t even seem possible two months ago could happen within a matter of days. Hundreds of Palestinians may have never thought that they would see their captured brothers again, but at least they knew that they were alive. Now, with the revelation that Shalit is alive and may be returning home soon, both sides could have something monumental to celebrate.

As Rabbi Metzger promised to have Shalit back by Hanukkah, maybe the Palestinians will have their capture friends and family back by the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday, which is coming up for Muslims.

For now each side is hopeful, but this game that has yet to play itself out is sure to be repeated in the future.

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