Gilad Shalit Exchange Deal could Boost Both Hamas and Israeli Government
Gilad Shalit has been the most famous prisoner in the Middle East since he was captured by Palestinian fighters on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006.
The deal to release the young artillery sergeant, as now confirmed, is a sensational achievement for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls Gaza but is shunned as a terrorist organisation by Israel.
In all, 1,000 Palestinians will be freed, including top members of the PLO as well as its rival Hamas. One is expected to be Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader popular with activists. Another is the head of Hamas military operations in the West Bank. No fewer than 315 of the 1,000 are serving life sentences.
Formal announcement of the agreement by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, dispelled doubt over whether this was the real thing. Previous rumours of a deal had proved false; so had wild celebrations in Gaza.
Netanyahu's calculation, described to the newspaper Haaretz by one Israeli official, was that the changes of the Arab spring and the rise of "extremist forces" in the region meant it was urgent to agree now.
The key player in this shadowy drama has been a German mediator and former intelligence officer named Gerhard Conrad, reported to have been in Cairo in the last few days, along with Israeli and Hamas officials. Egypt, still in turmoil following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February, is well placed as a go-between, though its relations with Israel have deteriorated badly in recent weeks. Netanyahu may have assumed they could get worse.
Hamas, for its part, has been feeling uncomfortable due to the violent unrest in Syria, its main base outside Gaza, so the mass release of prisoners will boost its credibility. Another factor may have been the sense that it had been upstaged by the PLO's bid for Palestinian membership of the UN.
Shalit's lonely, five-year plight has moved Israelis, who largely still accept the burden and risks of compulsory national service. But there has been angry criticism of the government for failing to secure his release. Past swaps have involved freeing hundreds of Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners, just for the bodies or even the body parts of Israelis killed in action, triggering criticism that it means handing victory to enemies; in 1985, Israel freed 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three soldiers captured in the Lebanon war.
Palestinians face the problem on a far larger scale: they count some 6,000 of their number held as security prisoners in Israeli jails, the admiring Arabic label of prisons as "factories for men" masking the toll on families. Men Israel calls "terrorists" are for Palestinians "freedom fighters" who lead their resistance to occupation.
For all Israel's vaunted intelligence capabilities, from electronic surveillance to networks of informers, its security forces have never managed to locate Shalit or mount a rescue operation.
And Hamas, in defiance of international law, never allowed access to him by the Red Cross or any other humanitarian organisation.
When the soldier's captors released his letters or audio, or, most recently, a videotape portraying him, it was always done as a move in what was a protracted bargaining process.
The prisoner's messages were delivered in ways designed to influence Israeli public opinion.
An intensive international diplomatic campaign to secure his freedom made no headway.
Long road to freedom
25 June 2006: Gilad Shalit is abducted on the Israeli border with southern Gaza
26 June: The Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees demand prisoner releases in exchange for Shalit
28 June: Israeli troops enter the southern Gaza Strip
29 June: Dozens of Hamas officials are detained by Israeli forces
1 July: Militants thought to hold Shalit demand the release of 1,000 prisoners
12 July: Hezbollah seizes two soldiers and kills others before a major conflict
25 June: Palestinian militants release an audio message from Shalit
27 December: Israel launches a major offensive in the Gaza Strip
24 November: Senior figures from Hamas take part in talks on a deal to hand over Shalit
8 July: Huge rally in Jerusalem calls for a deal to secure Shalit's release.
17 October: Israel says that talks for Shalit's release have resumed
11 October: Israeli cabinet session which leads to deal to free Shalit