Creating new perspectives since 2009

Prisoner swaps between Hamas and Israel are a sensitive issue

January 12, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Hamas militants stand guard in Gaza City as an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap deal gets under way on 15 November 2016 [Naaman Omar/Apaimages]

The issue of Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas in Gaza still has momentum in Israel, with various predictions of whether the two sides will get into agreement for a prisoner exchange or if they will postpone it, especially after the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades — the Hamas military wing — broadcast a video of a captured Israeli soldier. In return, Israel has implemented an even harsher regime and series of punishments against Palestinian prisoners.

We need to understand the Israeli decision-making mechanisms when it comes to prisoner exchange discussions; how the Israeli government and elites think; what the position of captured soldiers’ families is; and how civil society puts pressure on the Israeli government in this regard.

A few days ago, the Israeli government held its first public meeting to discuss this issue since the capture of Israeli soldiers by Hamas during the 2014 offensive against Gaza. The meeting coincided with an increase in calls by the soldiers’ families for their return along with accusations that the government is failing in this matter, as well as the video broadcast of the Israeli prisoners in Gaza. The latter was only hours before the convening of the Israeli meeting.

Prisoner exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis are nothing new; they stretch back to the beginning of the conflict in 1948. The last deal was in 2011, when Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners with lengthy sentences in exchange for Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by Hamas in 2006.

Most Israeli analyses show that although exchange deals end the suffering of captives’ families after years of painful waiting, they also reveal the heavy price that Israel has to pay, which could threaten its strategic goals. The natural result of repeated deals with armed groups is the strengthening of their positions domestically and abroad, and growing popularity.

At the same time, if Israel does not work to bring back its soldiers, dead or alive, it will look as if it does not care about them. When Israel signs an exchange agreement, it is natural that the other side is considered to have come out of it as the winner. Thus, while there may be a humanitarian public relations benefit for Israel to sacrifice a lot in order to bring its soldiers home, it may be interpreted politically as acceding to the demands of armed groups, who may raise the required price for the exchange.

Statements have been made by senior Israeli officials demanding exchange agreements. “The moral message, in my opinion, is greater than any other consideration, including the price,” said former Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz. “It would be an even higher price if the state gives up on one of its sons, because in this case, they might also give up on it!”

According to ex-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who played an active role in the last exchange deal as Shalit’s superior officer, it was important for him to be able to look his soldiers and their families in the eyes and tell them that the government and army had done all they could to bring them back. That’s why he asked ministers to agree to the deal.

For former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — the army’s most decorated soldier — there is a moral and ethical commitment to bring soldiers home. He has been participating in negotiations and agreements for the release of prisoners for 22 years and believes that it is prohibited to stop doing so.

Barak’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Golda Meir, said in her biography: “The issue of captured soldiers is one of the most complex problems I’ve faced in my life after the 1973 war. I was driving my car in the streets of Tel Aviv, looking out the windows to the homes and I wondered: which of these homes have missing sons? I wouldn’t dare look into the faces of their families. I swear I was ready to do anything to bring them back.” From this, we can see how resistance groups can use the card of Israeli public opinion, while taking into account the marital and ethnic background of those they capture.

Despite the changes that have taken place in how Israel addresses the issue of soldiers captured by resistance groups, it can be said that there are limitations it has tried to establish in the case of Palestinian prisoners. However, it is often forced to abandon such limits under the pressure of the steps taken by Palestinian resistance groups to get round them. The issue of captured Israeli soldiers is one in which Israel has given in to the demands of the Palestinians. Although Israeli leaders continue to stress their radical positions in this regard, it is clear that they offer considerable concessions, even if they are incompatible with the official discourse. Historically, there is a vast difference between government rhetoric and behaviour in this matter. Nevertheless, prisoner swaps remain a very sensitive issue.

There are a number of factors that influence Israeli decisions on prisoner exchange deals, including public opinion. Some will be visible in the coming days with regard to the release of the current batch of soldiers who were captured in Gaza.

For a start, it is a strategic imperative to get soldiers back to Israel. The government and senior Israel Defence Forces (IDF) officers insist that they will do everything possible to avoid their soldiers staying in captivity. This is not propaganda; they mean it, because soldiers on active service know that the state will work to bring them back, no matter what the circumstances. Thus, the theory goes, more will be motivated to join combat units.

Then there is the role of public opinion. This is an important aspect to consider, not only due to the nature of the political system, which gives proportionate weight to the public will, but also because there are important dimensions in play, given that soldiers’ families know that the government will work hard to bring them back if they are captured. Reassuring the public about this is a key element in Israel’s promotion of the IDF as “the people’s army”. The media has a key role to play in how decision-makers react to and mould public opinion.

Historical precedents also play an important role in the positions of ruling elites regarding exchange deals, both in terms of encouraging such deals or taking a negative view of them. A well-known example of this was the capture of pilot Ron Arad in Lebanon in the mid-eighties. There was an almost certain possibility to have him released had Israel only responded to the demands set by Lebanon’s Amal militia at the time. He is officially listed as “missing in action” but has been presumed dead since the nineties. Arad’s case supports the argument of those who believe that the Israeli government should pay any price to get captured service personnel released.

The position taken by Israel’s security services is also critical. Their role is pivotal due to the nature of the ruling political elites. It is important to point out that senior security officials do not have a unified position about exchange agreements; their influence will vary, depending on the political climate at the time of any exchange agreement.

Nevertheless, what is certain is that prisoner exchange deals with the Palestinian factions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are influenced more by the internal security agency, Shin Bet, because Palestinian prisoners who are released will return to the occupied territories. Shin Bet is responsible for tackling all resistance activities within the territories, thus its position is very important. Traditionally, it is believed that the heads of Shin Bet tend to reject prisoner exchange deals, justifying their stance by claiming that the danger lies in the image held by Palestinians about Israel and what they regard as Israeli surrender to Palestinian demands.

Shin Bet points out that 48 per cent of prisoners released in the 1985 exchange deal, and who returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were rearrested on charges of engaging in further resistance acts. This also happened with prisoners released in the last prisoner exchange deal in 2011 whom Israel rearrested, especially those living in the West Bank. That is why the former head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, opposed the list of demands set by Hamas in the deal.

The relative strength or weakness of Israel’s prime ministers is also a factor for consideration. It is interesting that the three most important prisoner exchange deals were agreed with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in 1985, during the premiership of right-winger Menachem Begin; the 2004 Hezbollah deal during right-wing Ariel Sharon’s period in office; and the agreement with Hamas in 2011 under current — and very right-wing — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter’s predecessor Ehud Olmert did not agree to a deal and was not strong enough to make a decision.

Finally, when Israel signs an exchange deal, it demonstrates that it is willing to waive its rights and give in to all of the demands set by the groups who capture its soldiers. Such deals may affect Israel’s deterrent power and encourage its enemies to try to capture more people. It may well be, therefore, that Israel decides to call their bluff and thus risk the lives of any and all of its soldiers who get taken prisoner.

Translated from, 8 January 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.