Beginning Tuesday, and continuing in the weeks ahead, Israel will release 1,027 Arab prisoners in return for the handover of one soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has been held by terrorists in Gaza since being kidnapped five years ago at the age of 19. He has been held captive for 1,940 days.
The first tranche of 477 prisoners, whose names were released Sunday by the prisons authority, include some of the perpetrators of the deadliest terrorist attacks committed in Israel over the past dozen years.
One, Alham Tamimi, disguised herself as a Jewish tourist as she delivered a suicide bomber to a busy pizzeria in central Jerusalem. Sixteen people, ranging in age from 63 to two years old, were killed in the Aug. 9, 2001 bombing. Two were U.S. citizens. Tamimi has declared herself to be unrepentant.
Another of those to be released, Nasser Iteima, was responsible for the suicide bombing of a Netanya hotel during a Passover seder in 2002. Thirty people, most of them elderly, were killed in that attack.
Number 280 on the list of prisoners to be freed, Walid Anajas, was serving 36 life sentences for deaths resulting from two suicide bombings in 2002 – one at a restaurant very close to the prime minister’s residence.
Also in the group is Ibrahim Younis, planner of a 2003 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem coffee shop. The seven victims included a doctor and his 20 year-old daughter, celebrating her wedding the following day. The café’s 22 year-old security guard, who tried to prevent the suicide bomber from entering, was also killed.
Of the 477 in the first group to be released, 285 were convicted of crimes so serious they were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Under a deal painstakingly hammered out between the government and Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, most of the prisoners to be released will be permitted to return to their homes in Gaza and the West Bank. Some West Bank residents will be restricted to Gaza and about 40 of the more sensitive cases will be sent abroad.
The identity of some of the terrorists soon to be free, along with the sheer number, has triggered a strong emotional response, with many torn between welcoming the news that Shalit is to be freed and deep anguish – and anger – about the price being paid.
Hamas will not ease the torment by handling the releases in a discreet manner. The group is planning a “national celebration” rally in Gaza to welcome home those it views as returning heroes.
Shalit was abducted by Palestinian gunmen during a June 2006 raid across the Gaza-Israel frontier that cost the lives of two other Israeli soldiers. His plight has been near the forefront of the national discourse ever since, his fate the subject of impassioned debates inside the country and drawn-out indirect negotiations mediated by Germany and Egypt.
The talks repeatedly stalled over Hamas’ demands to include some high-profile terrorists among those to be released. In April 2010 the group upped the pressure by releasing an animated video clip showing Shalit being returned to his father in a coffin, warning that that would be the outcome if Israel does not agree to a deal.
The grim clip revived memories of two other Israeli soldiers captured by terrorists in a cross-border raid, on that occasion by Hezbollah in northern Israel in 2006. The remains of the two men, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were eventually returned in coffins in a 2008 deal involving the release of five Lebanese prisoners, including a terrorist who in 1979 killed a four-year-old girl by smashing her skull with his rifle butt, after murdering her father.
Such uneven exchanges between Israel and its Arab enemies have occurred several times in the past, and each has sparked distress and debate over the relative merits of refusing to negotiate with terrorists and the precept in Judaism that regards redeeming captives as an obligation.
The most notorious swap took place in 1985, when Israel under Prime Minister Shimon Peres exchanged 1,150 terrorists, including the perpetrators of major attacks during the 1970s, for three soldiers captured in Lebanon three years earlier.
Among those freed was Ahmed Yassin, who went on to establish Hamas and serve as its spiritual leader until assassinated in a 2004 air strike. Others were to become leading figures in the violent uprising (intifada) launched two years after the mass release.
In 2004, Israel handed to Hezbollah more than 400 prisoners and the bodies of 60 Lebanese terrorists. In return it the Lebanese group handed over a captured Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed after being seized by Hezbollah members posing as U.N. peacekeepers in 2000.
‘My head says no’
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has long opposed releasing terrorists in prisoner swaps but on taking office he also pledged that he would make returning Shalit safely to his family a high priority.
He said last week that with political changes in the region, the window of opportunity to secure Shalit’s safe release may be closing. (In Egypt, Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies are poised to become much more influential.)
Netanyahu told his cabinet it was “a very difficult decision.”
“I feel for the families of victims of terror, I appreciate their suffering and distress, I am one of them. But leadership must be examined at moments such as this, being able to make difficult, but right, decisions,” he said.
“I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all.”
In a cabinet vote on the proposed deal, 26 ministers approved the plan and three opposed it. One of the three, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon pointed to previous releases that had led to more terrorist attacks and expressed concern that this would happen again.
“My heart says yes, but my head says no,” he said.
Also opposing the deal is Almagor, a group representing victims of Palestinian terrorism, which said it was a surrender to terrorism and would lead to future attacks. Israel’s High Court on Monday was considering several last minute petitions to halt the agreement, one submitted by Almagor.
In 2007, the organization released the findings of study revealing that at least 173 Israelis killed in attacks in the previous five years were the victims of terrorists who had been previously freed from Israeli jails, in deals relating to the peace process.