Tuesday morning marked the end of a long period of captivity for Israeli Seargent First Class Gilad Shalit. Shalit was taken captive on June 25, 2006 when his batallion was ambushed by a group of Palestinian militants in Kerem Shalom Israel, a few kilometers from Gaza and Egypt. One thousand nine hundred and forty two days after Shalit was taken captive, he finally returned home to Israel where he was warmly embraced by his family, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the rest of his country. The release of Gilad Shalit came at a very high cost though, as Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
Among these prisoners were several convicted felons who were found guilty in being directly involved with acts of terrorism. The list includes: Abbas a-Sayed, the mastermind behind the Park Hotel suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 30 Israelis during a religious holiday; Abdullah Bargouti, a bomb builder who is responsible for building bombs that killed 66 Israelis; Hussam Badran, former commander of Hamas in Samaria who was found responsible for the Tel-Aviv Dolphinarium massacre, Sbarro suicide bombing and the Matza restaurant bombing.
For this reason, the Israeli people are in a state of joy and discomfort. While the Israeli people are excited about the return of their lost son and soldier, they fear for the potential terror the former prisoners can bring upon Israeli society. The past few days people have asked me, “How could Israel make such an extreme exchange when they get so little in return?” The answer is simple. For a long time Israel’s policy has been “no man left behind”. This policy continues to be a stronghold that Israel prides itself on, considering every Israeli citizen over 18 knows what it means to serve their country, and the danger this includes.
A second reason for this prisoner swap is in hope for a step forward in the peace process. Even the former captive soldier seeks peace rather than vengeance after his five years in captivity. Gilad Shalit said himself that he would be happy if all Palestinian prisoners were released to return home to their families, so long as they wouldn’t go back to fighting against Israel. Shalit’s words encapsulate the feelings of young Israeli soldiers who are a dominant voice representing their country. Having several friends currently serving in the Israeli Defense Force, I speak with confidence when I say that Israelis are proud of this exchange, as they believe it will bring Israel a step closer to peace. However, the other side did not share the same feelings of pursuing peace. During the prisoner exchange, a live BBC field correspondent reported that Hamas militants and their supporters were yelling for “a new Shalit”. How can we expect steps toward peace when a political party uses kidnapping and violence as a means to gain legitimacy?
A second example comes from a woman who was released from prison as part of the prisoner exchange. Wafa al-Biss is a Palestinian woman who was sent to prison after she was caught attempting a terrorist attack. Wafa was en route to a hospital in 2005 when Israeli soldiers noticed the young woman was walking in a peculiar manner. After investigating the situation, Israeli soldiers found 22 pounds of explosives attached to her undergarments. She was en route to the hospital to commit a suicide attack. A day after her release from prison, she visited a young school and told the children, “I hope you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs”. This “path” that Wafa took was one to kill innocent civilians. Does teaching children this message really show an attempt to pursuing peace?
I understand that these two scenarios alone do not speak completely for the Palestinian people, but why have Hamas officials not come out explaining that they consider this a step in the peace process? Why haven’t the Palestinian people expressed their willingness to accept this as a step in the peace process? I only hope that the case of Wafa and that of Hamas supporters protesting at the boarder become overshadowed by stories of joy for the return of Palestinians to their homes. I hope that the prisoner exchange shows the willingness Israel has to make extreme sacrifices in the peace process. And I hope that soon we can see a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.