- Gaza Strip - Gilad Shalit - Hamas - Israel
Hostage to Hamas: Gilad Shalit's five-year ordeal
Gilad Shalit has written three letters, spoke on one audio tape and appeared in one video in the five years that he has been held captive by Hamas. His parents were told Tuesday that their son would be home “in the coming days”.
Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, a tank gunner in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), has been held hostage by Hamas, probably somewhere in the Gaza Strip, since his capture on June 25, 2006. He was 19 years old at the time.
Now 25, Sgt. Shalit (he has been promoted from corporal), has been held virtually incommunicado since his abduction by Palestinian gunmen at a border post between southern Gaza and Israel.
Apart from three letters, an audio tape and a video released by his captors in September 2009, there has been minimal contact between him and his family throughout his five-year ordeal.
And despite repeated requests by the Red Cross for access, Hamas has consistently refused to allow any visits to their high-value prisoner.
In Israel, Sgt. Shalit’s father Noam led a high-profile campaign to press the government into negotiating his son’s release, camping out in a tent near Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence since summer 2010.
According to both Hamas and the Israeli government on Tuesday, Sgt. Shalit, who holds dual French-Israeli citizenship and comes from Mitzpe Hila in Western Galilee, was to be released “in the coming days” as part of a prisoner swap involving some 1,000 Palestinians currently serving time in Israeli prisoners.
A pawn in a wider game
It is not the first time that the Israeli government has said it is close to securing Shalit’s release.
Throughout his imprisonment, Shalit has been a pawn in the wider diplomatic standoff between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian organisation that controls the Gaza Strip.
A major hurdle in attempts to secure his release diplomatically was the January 2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas, in which Israel launched a devastating offensive on Gaza in response to rocket attacks against southern Israeli towns.
Following the conflict, there were reports that as part of a wider truce Israel was willing to discuss releasing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Shalit.
The talks broke down, however, over the issue of releasing Palestinians who had been involved in deadly attacks against Israel.
Later that year, a deal was brokered for the release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners in return for a video showing that Shalit was alive and well.
In June 2010, Shalit’s family organised a massively publicised 12-day march from their home town in Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem to draw international attention to their son’s plight.
This prompted a fresh round of negotiations, faltering once more on the issue of which Palestinian prisoners it would be acceptable for Israel to release.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that Israel could not secure Sgt. Shalit’s release “at any price”, something the soldier’s grandfather said was a “death sentence”.
Negotiations continued apace, however, and on Tuesday night both Hamas and Netanyahu spoke to confirm that an agreement had been reached.
A deal is reached
Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting, in which all but three ministers approved the deal, that Shalit would be coming home “in the coming days” and that Cairo, traditionally a go-between in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, had helped broker the deal.
Netanyahu said: “I believe that we have reached the best deal that we could have got at this time. I don’t know if the coming period would have allowed us to reach a better deal or a deal at all. It’s possible that this window of opportunity would have closed for a final time.”
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal confirmed the agreement in a televised speech from the Syrian capital of Damascus.
“Hamas and Israel have reached an agreement under which 1,027 Palestinians, of whom 27 are women, will be freed in two phases,” Meshaal said, adding that 450 prisoners would be freed “in one week” and the rest “in two months”.
A top Israeli intelligence official ruled out the release of two key prisoners including Marwan Barghouti, an influential leader of the Fatah faction, and prominent militant Ahmed Saadat.