A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 26, 2009

Shalit Deal After Three Years?

I'm starting to get a growing sense that back-channel diplomacy is a lot more active than the open indications. would suggest Not only are there those signs of some sort of US-Syrian-Lebanese-Saudi grand bargain I blogged about yesterday, but there seem to be real indications of an imminent breakthrough in the Gilad Shalit hostage case, on its third anniversary.

Shalit is the young Israeli tanker (tank gunner actually) captured by Hamas in 2006 in a raid across the Gaza border. He was 19 when captured, 22 now; a corporal when captured, promoted to Staff Sergeant in captivity. Efforts to free him have been continuous since then, and there have been plenty of rumors of imminent deals which then slipped away, or were never really true in the first place.

On Tuesday the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported he would be transferred to Egypt within hours. Nothing happened and the Israeli government denied the story. This time it's the Israeli press reporting a breakthrough, and citing a "reliable European source."

This Haaretz article is claiming the deal was reached quite recently (the last two daysl, suggesting that the Maan story was merely premature) and that Shalit will be transferred to Egypt until an agreement is reached on the prisoners Israel is to release. It credits the US as the primary instrument in striking the deal, though it's well known that Egypt has been working very hard on this for years:
The idea to transfer Shalit to Egypt in exchange for the release of Palestinian women, teens, cabinet ministers and parliamentarians being held in Israeli prisons was raised about a year ago during a visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to Damascus, Jerusalem and Gaza. Apparently Carter raised it again on his visit earlier this month, during which he met Noam Shalit, Gilad's father.

According to the plan Shalit will be entrusted to Egyptian intelligence, and his parents will be allowed to visit him. He will be returned to Israel after an agreement is reached regarding the list of Hamas prisoners to be released that was previously submitted to the cabinet.

It hardly needs to be said that once Shalit is in Egyptian custody, regardless of the terms of the transfer, Egypt, as a country with diplomatic relations with Israel and a participant in all peace efforts, would have no real legal right to hold him. A deal that they would hold him temporarily would be conceivable, but it's hard to see how, if Hamas is unsatisfied with Israeli concessions, they could hold him indefinitely.

The story goes on to suggest that this is part of a broader deal to bring about a Palestinian reconiciliation:
...The deal would put the Gaza Strip under the leadership of a joint committee subordinate to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, removing it from the control of the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Pressure is building; the Shalit family and their supporters have held a big rally in the Hakirya (government ministries) quarter of Tel Aviv for the third anniversary (Jerusalem Post version here; the Yediot Aharanot version here).

In this part of the world, one must never, ever, count the chickens before they're hatched. But if the US — Haaretz never exactly explains what the "US brokered" role was — has actually managed to find a breakthrough here, then maybe things really are changing. Even if this was really an Egyptian breakthrough, and certainly they have to be intimately involved in any deal, it means that there are tectonic shifts going on behind the scenes.

I don't like hostages, or prisoners of war in undeclared wars. Gilad Shalit has been a pawn for three years. It's time to let him go home and hope that after that, Hamas and Israel can find some potential common ground. And that the deal can let Hamas find a way to integrate Gaza and the West Bank again. A two-state solution, if it is to ever be achieved, depends at a minimum on that.

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