Sunday 15 February 2009

Should Gilad Shalit's release be a pre-condition for a ceasefire in Gaza?

I was very pleased to read outgoing Prime Minister Olmert quoted in this morning's papers saying that there will be no truce in Gaza without the release of Gilad Shalit. As pleased as I was to read this, I have two regrets in this regard. My first regret is that he did not make this statement a lot sooner. My second regret is that he withdrew Israel Defence Force troops from Gaza, and called a halt to Operation Cast Lead, without first securing the release of the captured soldier. This is how strongly I believe that Gilad's release has to be a pre-condition for any further progress with Hamas in Gaza.

The reason for me holding this strong view is very simple. Gilad was kidnapped by Hamas with a supposed view to extract value from Israel for his release. After all, Israel has never been ashamed to admit to the fact that it values nothing more than the safe return of its soldiers, alive or dead. Whilst this has weakened Israel by laying it open to kidnappings such as the case of Shalit, there is no pretence on the part of Israel to hide the value that it places on bringing its boys home.

So, Hamas has kidnapped Shalit to extract value from Israel. Almost three years have passed since this day, during which time Israel has devoted much time and resources to negotiating with Hamas for his return. The press continually reports the fact that discussions between the parties mention many hundreds of prisoners to be released from Israel's jails in return for Shalit. And yet, Hamas never really looks serious about coming to an agreement. No matter how much Israel seems to be prepared to trade for Shalit's release, Hamas always seems to sense that it can extract more. Perhaps the release of Hamas prisoners is not as valuable to them as Shalit's release is to Israel? Maybe this has something to do with the fact that, whereas the Palestinian prisoners are treated like human beings and family visits are allowed, Hamas has not even so much as allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Shalit. There is no certainty that he remains alive at this moment in time. A negotiation becomes very difficult when one of the parties is not really negotiating, and does not really value anything sufficiently highly to trade with the other side for this.

Such an impasse has prevented progress for nearly three years. During this time, Israel's only option has been to continue to search for the one thing that Hamas values enough to force a trade for Shalit. A surprise military strike in the form of Operation Cast Lead has created this opportunity. Finally, Israel has identified that Hamas values a long-term truce with the removal of other associated restrictions above all else. Having worked for such a long time to identify this, Israel is now forced to hold this as the bargaining chip for Shalit. There seems to be little alternative prospect of gaining his release.

The values system displayed by Hamas in its negotiations has proved to be difficult for the Israelis to understand. A society that praises its youth for becoming suicide bomb martyrs is indeed a very difficult one to trade with. If it does not value the lives of its youth, what does it value? Having finally isolated one chink in the armour that could possibly secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli government should not and cannot let this opportunity go.

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