In the calculus of Israel's domestic politics, the equation is simple. The price for one captured Israeli soldier: 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The one is Gilad Shalit, a gawky 19-year-old when he was taken by the Hamas guerrillas who overran an Israeli army position outside Gaza four years ago, and held captive ever since. The 1,000 Palestinians have not yet been named, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that's the number he is willing to set free in exchange for Gilad Shalit. "This is the price I am prepared to pay to bring Gilad home," Netanyahu announced Thursday, as thousands of marchers, led by Shalit's parents, approached the prime minister's weekend home in a cross-country march aimed at forcing a deal for his release.
The march has dominated the news within Israel in the aftermath of the Memorial Day flotilla fiasco, an incident that brought the world's sympathetic attention to a situation of lesser interest in Israel: the 1.5 million Palestinians widely seen as being held hostage in Gaza, by Hamas or by Israel's blockade, or both. The plight of Shalit returns the focus to a narrative with a protagonist closer to the Israeli heart. The abduction of the young sergeant is what first prompted Israel to limit the flow of goods into Gaza. Four years later, his photo adorns billboards and flyers pasted on everything from lampposts to sliding glass doors of Ben Gurion International Airport. There is absolutely no talk about writing him off as a casualty of war.
"It's crazy to outsiders, but that's how it is," says Rami Igra, who during his days at Mossad was the agent in charge of recovering prisoners and missing persons for the Israeli intelligence service. "We are a small nation, a fighting nation. We have to show the people that fight with us and for us that we as a community will do the utmost to bring them back home. It's a battlefield value. It's a very important value, and it has a lot of weight in our national security." But, Igra adds, "Unfortunately the other side knows it and they use it against us."
Indeed, Hamas finds itself holding not only Shalit, but also most of the cards in negotiations over his release. With the public pressure on Netanhayu acute a recent poll found twice as many Israelis blamed their government more than Hamas "for the fact that Gilad Shalit is still in prison" Hamas is dictating not only the number but also the names of the prisoners who would get out. The Islamist group wants individuals who organized some of the most notorious attacks in Israel, including Ibrahim Hamed, whose cells carried out bombings at Hebrew University, Cafe Moment and Sbarro. Netanyahu insists he will not release any "arch-terrorists," defined as anyone responsible for at least 10 Israeli deaths.
The morbid calculations are grounded in experience. Among the 400 prisoners traded for a businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers in 2004 were men who went on to cause the deaths of more than two dozen Israelis. Igra argues that without the 1985 "Jabril swap" that released Palestinians who went on to found Hamas, the Gaza Strip would today be under control of the moderate Fatah faction that Israel regards as a suitable partner for peace.
At the same time, history has also shown that some Palestinians emerge from custody with ties to Israeli intelligence. The best known example is Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a senior Hamas leader, who fed Israel details of planned attacks for years after his release. A U.S. judge this week granted his request for asylum in California.
Igra called the value of such exceptions negligible. "These guys are hard-core ideologues," says the former Mossad official. "They live in a communal system in prison. There is a hierarchy there. There is loyalty there. There is love there. None of them will be flipped, and if here is one flipped, it's nothing compared to the mass of them."