Peace, Popular Opinion, and the Prisoner Exchange

In the summer of 2007, my Jewish summer camp handed out the dog tags of three Israeli soldiers as one of their standard “solidarity with Israel” giveaways (usually it was just a flag or something). The three soldiers had been captured the previous summer in raids by Hamas and Hezbollah at the western and southern border of Israel, respectively. I didn’t think much of it—at that age I assumed that pretty much anything was possible when it came to Israel—but I wore my dog tags dutifully for a couple weeks before forgetting about them and stuffing them in the bottom of my duffel bag.

A year later, Hezbollah traded the bodies of the two soldiers they had captured—Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser—for Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah prisoners, and the bodies of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters. When I read that news, I fished out my dog tags, removed two of the names, and once again wore the necklace for a week before putting it back in my bag.

That final dog tag belonged to Gilad Shalit, who until this Tuesday had been kept by Hamas at an undisclosed location in the Gaza Strip. During the five years of his imprisonment, he became a national symbol for Israel and an ugly blemish for a government that publicly promises to “take care of its own.” He was also one of the few bargaining chips that Hamas had—his release depended on Israel freeing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

After five years, Israel and Hamas reached an agreement exchanging Shalit for 1,027 prisoners. More significant than the exchange itself is the reaction it has received in both Israel and Palestine—for the first time in a long time, both sides have come away from a deal feeling pretty good about the results.

Seventy-nine percent of Israelis support the deal, making it the most popular move Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made in some time—his approval rating currently sits at 32 percent. Meanwhile, Palestinians rallied at the release of prisoners who had been serving sentences for a variety of reasons. True, some of the prisoners in the exchange were violent criminals, such as Walid Abd al-Aziz al-Hadi Anajas, who was serving 36 life sentences for his participation in three separate bombing attacks in 2002. But others are men and women like Muhammad Salama ‘Abid al-Sufi, who had never been sentenced or convicted despite spending four years in prison. The release of these prisoners marks a major victory for Palestinians in the face of an unjust border control policy.

All things considered, the timing of this exchange should have been perfect for both Hamas and Netanyahu. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party regularly clashes with Hamas, had recently taken the spotlight with his United Nations statehood bid, and housing protests in Israel were bringing undesired national attention to the Netanyahu government. For such a well-received move, the Shalit prisoner exchange should have provided a welcome shot in the arm for both parties involved in the deal.

However, apparently skepticism over Netanyahu’s and Hamas’s abilities to broker further deals still holds fast in Israel and Palestine. Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza questioned the deal, saying that Hamas could have brokered a better deal and waffled on some of its original promises. On the Israeli side, a recent poll showed that 49 percent of Israelis think Netanyahu made the deal because of pressure from public opinion, while only 43 percent said he acted “like a leader.”

Public reaction to the exchange ultimately leaves us back where we started with Israel and Palestine. For the cynical, the deal sparks fears that more abductions will follow, since Hamas has shown that prisoner exchanges are still the best way to get Palestinian prisoners released.

Yet public skepticism over the motives of Hamas and Netanyahu ultimately bodes well for the future of the peace process. It is clear that, if a mutual peace agreement is to be reached, Fatah and not Hamas will be the Palestinian party who will push it through. And Netanyahu has proven incapable of making concessions at the table—his obstinacy is what pushed Abbas to the U.N.

The world should celebrate the Shalit prisoner exchange as a welcome end to an ugly chapter within an even uglier story. Shalit’s release will not lead directly to peace and will surely have little effect on the peace process, but the reaction to the exchange at least shows two sides happy to see this ordeal end and disillusioned with leaders more concerned with their own popularity than peace.

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