Gilad Shalit: Israel tense as prisoner swap looms

A Palestinian man looks at a banner bearing names and photos of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a protest calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners, outside the International Red Cross building on October 14, 2011 in east Jerusalem, Israel
Credit: Uriel Sinai

JERUSALEM — As the planned release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit early Tuesday morning approaches, Israel is gripped by a volatile emotional cocktail of barely contained exuberance and lurking dread familiar to anyone who has anticipated possibly lifesaving yet high-risk surgery.

The stakes are enormous. The risks daunting. The possibility of heartbreak considerable. Excitement is balanced by tempered hopes.

It is unclear whether Staff Sargent Shalit, who was abducted by commandos and has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza for almost five and a half years, is aware of the impending prisoner exchange in which he is to be traded for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners now held in Israel.

Meanwhile, the unlikely quartet of leaders who made the deal for Shalit’s release possible are trying to reap the political fruits. Egypt’s ruling military régime, whose intelligence services shepherded the final negotiations, is making a gambit to reclaim regional relevance after the upheaval that has followed the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak last February.

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Hamas is attempting to reposition itself after a few months in which its popularity has been steadily eroded. Its status as an international pariah has been highlighted by the international recognition enjoyed by its rival faction, Fatah, since Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas presented a bid for recognition of Palestine to the United Nations last month.

Despite the attempt to sideline him, Abbas has organized a homecoming party for the released Palestinian prisoners who will be permitted to return to the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as opposition leader loudly voiced a principled opposition to any prisoner exchanged deal for Shalit, hopes to reap political advantage from the most lopsided such deal in Israel’s history. The rescue and recovery of soldiers captive in enemy territory is almost sacred in the Israeli imagination.

In an ironic twist, Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the capture of Israel’s last soldier known to have been taken alive by enemy forces. The jet of air force officer Ron Arad was lost over southern Lebanon on Oct. 16, 1986, and he was seized by Hezbollah forces who held him for a number of years, only twice releasing pictures of the increasingly emaciated navigator. It is assumed he was later transferred to Iran and killed.

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The dismay and anxiety felt by many in Israel since the announcement of the pact to release Shalit has several sources, in addition to the unhappy association with Arad, whose trace was lost as successive Israeli governments refused to negotiate with terrorist organizations.

Among the first batch of 477 prisoners to be released on Tuesday are a number of infamous and feared figures such as Alham Tamimi, who drove the car for a suicide bomber who blew up a Sbarro’s pizzeria in Jerusalem in 2001, killing 15 Israelis, and who has consistently expressed her regret at not having killed more. Also among the amnestied is Abed el-Aziz Salha, notorious for a televised windowpane scene in which he boisterously waved his two bloodied hands after strangling to death an Israeli soldier who had mistakenly driven into Ramallah.

Among Israeli families petitioning the Supreme Court to repeal or postpone the Shalit deal are surviving members of the Schijveschuurder family, which lost five people, including both parents and three toddlers in the Sbarro’s bombing.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear emergency petitions Monday morning, but it is virtually certain not to affect the deal. A government decision has never been overturned by the highest court. So confident were Israeli authorities of the logistics of the exchange that the transfer of Palestinian prisoners to southern jails in anticipation of their handover to Gaza and Egypt was completed by late Sunday.

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Final misgivings in Israel have to do with the uncertainty regarding Shalit’s condition. He has not been seen by any person other than his captors in more than five years. Whereas it is widely assumed that Egyptian authorities have assured Israel that he is fit and well, no proof has been offered. Asked Monday if he has received any news regarding his son’s wellbeing, Noam Shalit only said “Inshallah.”

Israelis also have the memory of Udi Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, Israeli reserve soldiers who vanished during a skirmish at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. For two years Hezbollah claimed to be holding the two alive, only eventually to return their bodies. Describing the moment in which instead of seeing his promised son, a coffin was placed on the table, Regev’s father said, “I only hope such a thing will never happen again.”

The exchange is now slated to take place in an elaborately choreographed series of steps Tuesday morning. First, Shalit will be transferred by land, in the company of Egyptian officials, from Gaza to Egypt, where he will undergo an initial medical assessment. At the moment Egypt confirms his identity, Israel will release the first set of 27 prisoners, all women.

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The next 452 of the total are scheduled to be freed once Shalit is on Israeli soil. He will be brought first to a military base near the Egyptian border where he will undergo a more extensive evaluation and be handed a new cellphone, with which to call his parents. They will be waiting, alongside the prime minister and defense minister, at an air force base in the Galilee, near the Shalit family home. The media is being kept at bay. If all goes according to plan, Gilad Shalit, now 25, will arrive home Tuesday afternoon, five years and four months after setting off for a weekend of unremarkable tank duty.

In a series of interviews Monday with increasingly frantic journalists, Tel Aviv University professor Zahava Salomon, an expert in the trauma of long-term hostages, pleaded with the Israeli media to allow the returning soldier much needed breathing space.

“I’ll keep talking to you if you just leave him alone, OK?” she said.

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