Give Us Our Prisoners, Dead or Alive

By Joharah Baker

Prisoner swaps are the talk of the hour these days. With an imminent Hizbullah-Israel prisoner swap likely to take place as early as next week and a Hamas-Israel exchange also on the horizon, the question of just how valuable a political card prisoners represent has risen once again to the fore.

Israel apparently holds its captured prisoners in extremely high esteem, even those who have long ago passed away. While the final details of the prisoner exchange are yet to be divulged, several media reports and Israeli and Hizbullah officials have stated that the two Israeli soldiers – Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser – captured in the 2006 Lebanon War, are dead. Ron Arad, the Israeli pilot who went missing after his plane malfunctioned over Lebanon in 1986 and was subsequently captured by Amal, is also believed to be dead. In exchange for the bodies of the two latter soldiers and information on the third, Israel will release Samir Kuntar, the longest standing Lebanese prisoner in an Israeli jail.

Kuntar, a national hero among many Lebanese, was captured and imprisoned after leading and carrying out an armed attack on Israelis in the coastal city of Netanya in 1979, killing four.

Israel has also said it would release a small number of Palestinian prisoners – anywhere between 10 and 50 – in the Hizbullah swap. There are no details so far as to which and how many prisoners would be released, as the decision is totally at the discretion of the Israeli government.

For Hizbullah, this is certainly a good deal. For years, the movement has been set on securing the release of Kuntar, but with no success. Kuntar’s name in Israel is synonymous to a monster, given that a father and child were among those killed in the operation. Some in Israel are up in arms over the imminent release of Kuntar, saying his freedom would only further complicate the fate of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza since June, 2006. As for Ron Arad, who is almost certainly dead, Israel is only looking for definitive information about where he is buried so they can bring him home. Five other Hizbullah prisoners are reportedly also part of the exchange deal.

At least Shalit is alive. Should a prisoner swap materialize between Hamas and Israel, the young soldier will eventually be reunited with his family and not in a body bag. Again, Israel has yet to cede to Hamas’ demands for giving up Shalit – its strongest card by far. All other attempts at cutting a deal on Shalit have thus fallen through, usually because Israel would not accept to release Palestinians with "Jewish blood on their hands."

The winds of change seem to be shifting though these days. While negotiations over Shalit have been ongoing for months with Egyptian mediation, they have yet to result in a concrete agreement. Still, word is that Shalit will eventually be freed somewhere down the line in exchange for Palestinians – as many as 1,000 – including those involved in masterminding or even executing attacks against Israelis.

What’s more, Hamas has demanded the release of West Bank Fateh Secretary Marwan Barghouti, serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli jail. Israel has previously rejected Barghouti’s name in any possible prisoner swap, primarily because of its principle of not releasing any Palestinian involved in attacks on Israelis. Barghouti, besides possibly being the most popular man in Fateh, is also accused by Israel of involvement in the killing of four Israelis and a Greek monk in Jericho. He was captured by Israeli forces in 2002.

Apparently, Israel is reconsidering its veto on Barghouti. Back in May, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said he would be willing to release Barghouti for Shalit. "I am willing to do much to free a soldier like Gilad so he can return home," he said.

This seems to be the case for all of its soldiers – alive or dead. In agreeing to the Hizbullah swap, Israel has proven just how important its soldiers are to them, even if they bring them home only to bury them. During the Israeli Cabinet session on June 29, Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi made it clear what he feels is his duty towards his people. "I am the commander of all the soldiers…of the living and the dead, and therefore I say to you the deal must be approved.”

The fact that Israel included dead soldiers in the swap is not so shocking. The Palestinians will also reportedly receive the bodies of two Palestinians who carried out operations against Israelis back in 1978. Dalal Al Mughrabi and Yahya Skaf, who hijacked an Israeli bus in Tel Aviv, have been kept, embalmed, in the Abu Kbeir Forensics Institute in Israel since then.

On the surface, Israel is seemingly getting little in comparison to the Palestinians and other Arabs, which is hardly ever the case. Perhaps, however, for the families of these dead men, it is equally as important to have a tombstone to visit, to ensure that their sons are given a dignified burial and a final resting place among family and friends.

In the case of Gilad Shalit, however, both sides want the boy alive. For one, he was not injured when captured like Regev and Goldwasser, who were reportedly seriously wounded in battle. Shalit is alive and kicking and Hamas knows he is their best pawn in securing the release of a large number of prisoners. If they kill him, Israel will have no problem entering Gaza and carrying out a large scale operation that would surely involve scores of Palestinian deaths, in the name of their fallen soldier.

As it stands, this is a win-win situation. Israel gets its soldier back and Hamas gains popularity with its people by freeing some of their sons and daughters from the iron grip of Israeli bars. Should Marwan Barghouti be eventually freed, this would be additional icing on the cake.

If nothing else, one lesson has been learned. When push comes to shove, Israel does not underestimate or belittle the importance of its missing, killed or captured soldiers. These soldiers may be pushed to the back burner when other more pressing issues are at hand, but they are never, ever forgotten.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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