Clarissa Tan

Saving Private Shalit

Saving Private Shalit
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It's difficult for the outside world to understand the huge significance that Gilad Shalit's release, this morning, has for Israel. A soldier captured by Hamas five years ago, he has become a huge cause célèbre — to the extent that black cabs in London were even commissioned with his picture on it. Books that he wrote aged 11 were printed and bought in their thousands by Israelis. He was wanted back so badly that Israel has agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, among them hardcore terrorists. Events stemming from the Arab Spring have made both sides eager to do a deal, which experts say might contribute — even if in a tiny way — towards that ever-elusive peace settlement.

Shalit is the first Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians since 1994, and has become a household name and a symbolic figure in his homeland. You'd think that the idea of letting a thousand prisoners go would be controversial — but nearly 80 per cent of Israelis are in favour of the deal. Shalit has not been allowed Red Cross visits since his kidnapping, or communications with his family, who has kept up an untiring campaign for his freedom. A corporal when he was kidnapped, Shalit has been promoted twice while in prison, and once more again yesterday, to sergeant-major by PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was in the interests of both Israel and Hamas that they locked up a deal quickly, given the winds of the Arab Spring — especially in Egypt and Syria, which have had roles in the intermediations — may change at any moment. Hamas has had to seize the initiative from its rival Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has won popular favour after pushing for UN recognition of Palestine as a state. Israel has public sentiment to consider — not only at home but abroad, given the unresolved knot of Palestinian statehood.

As is to be expected with any Middle Eastern deal, already there are drawbacks — not least the fact that terrorists will be set free, and the precedent this sets. Yesterday, several Israeli families who’ve lost relatives to Palestinian suicide bombers tried to block the release of the prisoners, though the Israeli high court has rejected their petitions. “The decision to release Gilad Shalit was one of the most difficult ones I have ever made,” Netanyahu was compelled to express in a letter to the bereaved relatives. Between them, the 1,027 prisoners have, is is said, killed 599 Israelis.

Still, at least the prisoner-exchange deal shows that Israel and Hamas are capable of ironing out agreements. It also, argue certain observers such as CNN, removes one obstacle of the many standing in the way of a peace settlement. Although the more cynical among us may be forgiven for thinking — we’ve been here before.