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What's at Stake in the Deal for Gilad Shalit

T

he video of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit ruled the ratings on the eve of the Sukkoth festival, sparking off a weekend of analyses as commentators studied each frame of the two-minute forty-second Shalit clip that Hamas released in exchange for 20 Palestinian prisoners.

When the psychologists, security services, members of the press and news anchors had finished scrutinizing the goods, they turned their attention to the price: was this sign of life worth the release of 20 prisoners? And then the discussion moved on to the big issue: should Israel release 450 "heavyweight" prisoners in exchange for just one Gilad? In the TV studios the question swung between the personal and the national: on the personal level, everyone stands shoulder to shoulder with Noam and Aviva, Shalit’s parents. But on a national level, many saw the price as too high. And even worse is the lesson the Palestinians may learn from the deal: that it pays to kidnap soldiers.

Israel’s prisons and detention centers hold close to 11,000 Palestinian prisoners. One in three Palestinian men has experienced some kind of arrest or imprisonment since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Kidnapping soldiers has been the ultimate weapon for gaining the release of prisoners. What really bothers the security services is not “blood on the hands” of a specific prisoner, but the concept. The exchange of prisoners for kidnapped soldiers is a price of occupation that Israel will not forever be willing to pay.

The basic problem is political. The imminent deal on Shalit involves much more than a prisoner release. Israel, like its strategic partner the Palestinian Authority (PA), is terrified of the political mileage Hamas will gain. Shalit's capture three years ago was the occasion for placing Gaza under total blockade, and the two are bound together in Israeli policy (Haaretz April 15, 2009). The IDF controls the entry of every grain of rice, every shoelace. If the Shalit deal goes through (and especially now that Hamas has ceased rocketing Israel), there’ll no longer be a pretext for maintaining the blockade. Therefore the question under discussion concerns the kind of relationship Israel will maintain with Hamas on the day after.

On the Palestinian domestic front, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has succeeded – with Egyptian and Saudi help – in isolating Hamas, which drove Fatah leaders from the Gaza Strip in 2007. The next Palestinian elections, pitting Hamas against Fatah, are slated for January 2010. Both organizations need something to boast about. It will be a great feather in Hamas' cap, therefore, if the 450 prisoners are home by then.

Abu Mazen is busy marketing the “economic boom” in the West Bank: this is Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-vaunted, American-backed “economic peace.” He is banking on the Palestinian population’s exhaustion after eight years of intifada—on its hunger for a “normal life” without roadblocks. Hamas, on the other hand, markets the release of prisoners, as well as its consistency on national issues. If the prisoners are exchanged and Fatah wins nonetheless, Israel will consider this a fair return for the price it has paid. It expects a further return as well: the collapse of the Hamas concept of achieving political aims through armed struggle.

The political-security establishment promises that when Shalit returns to his Mitzpe Hila home, it will issue new protocols regarding the kidnapping of soldiers. The media are already cautiously leaking details. The idea is simple, and takes the sting out of every kidnapping: From now on, buddy, you’re on your own; the IDF relinquishes all responsibility for kidnapped soldiers. This means that Gilad Shalit is the last customer for whom the IDF will pay “any price.” This new policy is tantamount to the privatization of an IDF soldier’s “life insurance.” Each family will have to decide whether it is willing to allow its sons to be held captive and left to their fate. To avoid captivity, a soldier fighting in Gaza or Lebanon or Jenin will tend to shoot at anything that moves, returning home as a war criminal.

During the Gaza operation Israeli commentators came up with phrases like “searing the Palestinian consciousness” or “creating a new balance of forces.” These concepts covered what to the eyes of outsiders—Richard Goldstone among them—are war crimes. Goldstone counted over a thousand dead, mostly civilians, including dozens of children. A war on civilians is Israel’s way of persuading the Palestinians that it doesn't pay to kidnap soldiers (so vote Fatah!).

Instead of discussing the price of Shalit’s release, we should be discussing the price of a peace agreement. Whoever is willing to dismantle the settlements, to give back the occupied territories up to the Green Line (the pre-1967 border), to come up with a fair solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees and to enable, finally, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state will ensure that there'll be no more Gilad Shalits. But as long as Israel refuses to do what everyone knows it must, the next kidnapping is merely a question of time.

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