NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

Article photo 1
Gilad Shalit is escorted by his father Noam Shalit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak after being reunited with his family in Israel.
Article photo 2
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined Hassan Youssef, a senior member of Hamas, at a rally in Ramallah hailing the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Gilad Shalit and Israel’s Ethos of Mutual Responsibility

After being held captive for more than five years in Gaza, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released on Oct. 18, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them sentenced to life in prison for killing Israeli civilians. Israelis were glued to their television screens throughout the day, watching Shalit free for the first time since 2006, and residents of his hometown Mitzpe Hila lined the streets to welcome him home.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that the lopsided prisoner swap with the terrorist group Hamas was grounded in Israeli society’s foundational value of mutual responsibility. “As a leader who daily sends out soldiers to defend Israeli citizens, I believe that mutual responsibility is no mere slogan – it is a cornerstone of our existence here,” he said.

Kidnapped to Gaza

Gilad Shalit was a 19-year-old soldier guarding an army post within Israel when members of Hamas and other terrorist groups attacked his tank and took him prisoner on June 25, 2006. The terrorists, who had crossed from the Gaza Strip into Israel via an underground tunnel, killed two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers serving with Shalit in the cross-border raid.

Shalit was taken to an unknown location in the Gaza Strip, where he was held for 1,940 days. His captors refused all requests for visits by the International Red Cross and denied Shalit contact with his family, contrary to the Third Geneva Convention. “The total absence of information concerning Mr. Shalit is completely unacceptable,” Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said. “The Shalit family have the right under international humanitarian law to be in contact with their son.”

The only contact between Shalit and the outside world during his captivity were three letters, an audio tape and a DVD. The DVD, which Israel received in October 2009 in return for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners, was the last evidence prior to his release confirming that Gilad Shalit was still alive.

1,027 Palestinian Prisoners for One Israeli Soldier

Constant efforts were made to secure Shalit’s release over the course of his five years in captivity. Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as Congressional leaders, spoke out on his behalf.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms his continued detention, and joins other governments and international organizations around the world in calling on Hamas to release him immediately,” the White House said in a statement issued on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture. Congress passed numerous resolutions (e.g., H.Res. 1359 and S.Res. 571) condemning his abduction and inhumane treatment and calling for his immediate and unconditional release.

The Shalit family was embraced by the Israeli public, many of whom participated in various activities meant to draw attention to Shalit’s plight. In the summer of 2010, tens of thousands of Israelis joined the Shalits for parts of a 12-day march from the Shalits’ home in northern Israel to Jerusalem. Many also visited the Shalits in a tent they pitched near the prime minister’s residence.

Throughout Shalit’s captivity, Israel conducted indirect negotiations with Hamas for his release, but the terrorist group that controls Gaza rejected prisoner swap deals proposed by German mediators. In the end, Egyptian negotiators succeeded in formulating a deal whereby Israel would release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit.

Netanyahu, whose cabinet voted 26 to 3 in favor of the prisoner swap, said that the upheavals in the Arab world had made it important to move forward on the deal. “With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter,” he said. “This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”

The first 477 prisoners, agreed upon with Hamas, were freed on Oct. 18. As Israel had insisted, most were sent to Gaza or deported to other countries in the region. On the same day, Sergeant First Class Shalit was taken from Gaza into Egypt and from there to an air force base in Israel, where he met with Netanyahu and was reunited with his family.

“And today, now Gilad has returned home, to his family, his people and his country. This is a very moving moment.” Netanyahu said in a televised address from the airbase shortly after. “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.”

Another 550 Palestinian prisoners of Israel’s choice will be released in December to complete the deal.

Palestinian Reactions

As Shalit was returning home, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to celebrate the release of the prisoners. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas joined Hassan Youssef, a senior member of Hamas, at a rally in Ramallah. “We thank God for your return and your safety,” Abbas said. “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland.” Chants of “The people want a new Shalit” could be heard in Ramallah as Hamas and Fatah supporters waved flags together.

In the Gaza Strip, a would-be Palestinian suicide bomber freed by Israel told cheering schoolchildren the day after her release she hoped they would follow her example. “I hope you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs,” Wafa al-Biss said. After she spoke, the children cheered and waved Palestinian flags and chanted: “We will give our souls and blood to redeem the prisoners. We will give our souls and blood for you, Palestine.” BACK TO TOP