Israel and the Palestinian Hamas have on Tuesday signed a complex swap deal mediated by Egypt that would result in the release of the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and over 1000 Palestinian prisoners.
The signing of the document is likely to help realign regional political equations, centred around Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the exit of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Shalit, then 19 was abducted in June 2006 when a Hamas-affiliated group mounted a daring cross-border raid, in which two Israeli soldiers were also killed. Since then, Mr. Shalit has been used as a prized bargaining chip for the release of Palestinian prisoners who have languished in packed Israeli jails. Both sides claimed victory after the protracted negotiations lasting several agonising years came to fruition in Cairo. Claiming credit for Mr. Shalit's release during a televised address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Two and a half years ago, with the forming of [my] government, I took it upon myself as my most significant task to return Gilad [Shalit] to his people and his family and return him alive and well.”
But expressions of victory, achieved at great cost and sacrifice, were no less palpable in Gaza, the stronghold of Hamas. Appearing on television in Damascus, where he lives in exile, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal announced with great exuberance that the deal signed in the Egyptian capital marked “a national achievement that we should be proud of”. In the Jabaliya refugee camp in the crowded Gaza city, the news triggered spontaneous celebrations.
Analysts say raw emotions had been unlocked by the deal, as it seemed to justify the great suffering that residents of Gaza had endured over the past five years. Mr. Shalit's abduction had been followed by Israel's decision to besiege, and curb the flow of essentials goods, to the coastal strip. Human rights activists argued that the people of Gaza had become victims of collective punishment, which at the end of 2008 culminated in a brutal war which lasted for 22 days.
In his address, Mr. Meshaal said 1,027 jailed Palestinians would be freed in two phases. A set of 450 prisoners will be released in “one week,” including all the jailed Palestinian women. Another 550 will step out “in two months”. While well-known charismatic figures like Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti or Ahmad Saadat of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is not on the list, Palestinian negotiations have managed to free 315 prisoners, who have been serving life sentences. In the first batch of 450, 203 will be deported, with 40 out of them facing a permanent ban to enter Israel and the Palestinian territories. A total of 131 prisoners will be returned to Gaza, while 110 will head home to the West Bank.
Observers say that the deal has boosted the popularity of Hamas, which had been upstaged recently after Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas sought United Nations recognition for an independent Palestinian state. The deal also appears to have bolstered the international and domestic standing of the new rulers of Egypt, where public opinion strongly favours the Palestinians. The document signed on Tuesday has seemingly helped stall the steep decline in Cairo-Tel Aviv ties. Not without purpose Mr. Netanyahu on his Twitter account thanked “the Egyptian government and its security forces for their role in mediation and concluding the deal”.