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Israel and Hamas deal: 20 prisoners for a video of Shalit

TEL AVIV — Israel said it will release 20 female Palestinian prisoners Friday in return for a video of a soldier held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for more than three years, calling it a confidence building measure ahead of “decisive” negotiations on a prisoner exchange.

“It is important that the entire world know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his well-being and fate,” read a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A masked spokesman from Hamas’s military wing confirmed the deal during a hastily called news conference in Gaza.

The announcement marks the first tangible sign of progress in drawn-out talks to free Israeli Defense Forces Cpl. Gilad Shalit in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were convicted of participating in attacks on Israeli civilians. The abduction of Shalit in June 2006 and the failure of the sides to reach a deal has contributed to instability along the Gazan-Israeli border, where a war erupted earlier this year for several weeks.

“It will help bring down the tension between Israelis and Palestinians and open the door to talks about a [cease-fire] rather than conflict,” says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. “It will facilitate getting back to the peace table.”

Winning the freedom of large numbers of prisoners could provide a major political dividend to Hamas, which has seen support among Palestinians sag in recent months in the aftermath of the Gaza war. Though many Palestinians will undoubtedly praise the Islamic militants for the prisoner swap, others have quietly questioned whether the price – siege, economic devastation, and thousands of war casualties – was justified.

While Shalit’s freedom would remove a central justification for Israel’s economic blockade of the coastal strip of 1.5 million Palestinians, some analysts say that such a deal could also spur efforts to reconcile the two-year rift between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s asymmetric swap

In Israel, Mr. Netanyahu will likely come under criticism from his conservative wing, who argue such asymmetric swaps only encourage new abductions. Still, such swaps are not unusual. And polls indicated that most Israelis will support the prime minister paying a high price for Shalit’s release.

“Shalit has become such a major symbol and a major element in Israel’s psyche. He is a symbol of the responsibility of the state to all its soldiers,” says Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University of Jerusaleum political science professor. “Netanyahu expects to gain a lot of emotional public support for the exchange.”

Any deal for Shalit’s freedom would also mark a major achievement for Egyptian and German mediators between Israel and Hamas, which don’t recognize one another.

Still, Israel’s government said in its statement today that the talks are likely to be “long and arduous.”

Shalit’s family, who have led a national campaign to pressure Israel’s government for a deal, released a statement today calling the agreement a “meaningful achievement” and a “first step in the right direction to the release of Gilad,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

A book recently published by the Gaza correspondent of Israel Channel 2 television news detailed allegations about the mental and physical stresses faced by Shalit while in Hamas captivity. A report by United Nations investigator Richard Goldstone on the recent Gaza war also called on Hamas to release Shalit.

In the past, Hamas has released a letter and a video of Shalit, but has not allowed any humanitarian groups to visit the soldier. Israel has cited the abduction as a justification for its ongoing sea and land trade blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Dan Scheuftan, a professor of political science at Haifa University in Israel, says the deal announced on Wednesday marks a “capitulation to emotional terrorism” and lacks strategic vision. Freeing the female prisoners will send a message to would-be Palestinian women militants that they could eventually be released from jail.

Nohi Eyal, the director of the Land of Israel Forum, told Haaretz that Netanyahu shouldn’t engage in an asymmetric swap. “For a soldier of ours, they need to release one soldier,” he said. “A genuine government must look beyond the eyes of the Shalit family and into the eyes of the future kidnap victims, which, to our regret, such a deal will only encourage.”

However, Netanyahu would not be the first Israeli prime minister to conclude a controversial asymmetric swap with a militant Arab group without direct ties to Israel. In 2008 former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert released several hundred Hezbollah fighters in return for the bodies of three soldiers. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also conducted a similar exchange with Hezbollah.

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