Doubts grow in Israel over prisoner swap

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 16, 2011 

JERUSALEM — Doubts over Israel's handling of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit continued to grow Sunday, as senior intelligence officers suggested that Israel could have retrieved Shalit sooner.

The Israeli public also heard, for the first time, the full list of 477 prisoners that will be released Tuesday. An additional 550 prisoners will be released in the upcoming months.

The list was a blow to some families, who had lost loved ones in terror attacks. Those families have protested the government decision to release Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted of involvement in the attacks.

On Friday, 27-year-old Shvuel Schijveschuurder was arrested and accused of splashing white paint and spraying graffiti on the memorial to Rabin in central Tel Aviv. Police said he was spurred to attack the memorial when news broke that several Palestinians involved in the 2001 suicide bombing at the Sbarro Pizza restaurant in Jerusalem would be among the released prisoners.

Schijveschuurder's parents and three siblings were among those killed in the restaurant.

"The Shalits' struggle is legitimate, but if his release is contingent upon the freeing of prisoners, then the [Shalit] family should join us, the bereaved family," Schijveschuurder said.

Schijveschuurder is among dozens of Israelis who are planning on petitioning the High Court of Israel to stall the release of the Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli officials said that while they would review the petition, they have, in the past, always allowed prisoner exchanges to proceed.

While some Israelis have questioned the logic of setting a precedent of exchanging upwards of one thousand prisoners for one captured soldier, others have asked why Israel did not examine other options to free Shalit.

Former Israeli Military Intelligence Col. Ronen Cohen said that Israel failed in multiple attempts to free Shalit using "alternative means."

Bringing Shalit back through a prisoner swap was a "resounding failure of the IDF. There are no other words to describe it," Cohen told the Israeli daily Haaretz. "The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back. They simply passed it on to the Shin Bet."

Cohen revealed that the IDF had "partial intelligence" on Shalit's situation that may have enabled a rescue operation.

In the weeks after Shalit was captured, however, Israel went to war with Southern Lebanon and then IDF chief Dan Halutz was "distracted," said Cohen.

Shalit's file was then handed over to Israel's intelligence officials, who believed that Israel still had partial intelligence to attempt a rescue operation at the time of the Israeli military operation in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, in 2008.

"It may also be that during the operation it was possible to do something under the cover of the chaos of the fighting, but it was not done," Cohen said. During the fighting in Gaza, Israeli officials explored the possibility of abducting senior Hamas figures that they could use to bargain for Shalit.

The opportunity was missed, said Cohen, and after the war Israel lost the string of intelligence on Shalit's situation and location.

Details on the upcoming prisoner exchange were finalized over the weekend. On Tuesday morning, all 27 female prisoners will be released in one stage. Hamas will then turn Shalit over to the Red Cross and Egyptian intelligence officials in Gaza. Once he is confirmed to be alive and healthy, Israel will begin to release the 450 male prisoners.

Shalit will then be taken from Egypt and driven into southern Israel by military personnel. He will be debriefed and undergo a medical examination, before he is flown to the Tel Nof army base in central Israel to meet his family, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Shalit family will then be flown to their home in northern Israel.

In the coming months, an additional 500 Palestinian prisoners will be released in yet-to-be-determined dates.

Among the prisoners included for release are Nasser Yataima, who was sentenced to 29 life sentences for the 2002 bombing of a Netanya hotel; Yussuf Dhib Hamed Abu Aadi, who was convicted of stabbing IDF soldier Nir Kahana at the Qalandiya checkpoint in 2005 and was sentenced to life in prison; and Na'el Barghouti, who served in prison since 1978 for his involvement in the stabbing of a settler in the West Bank.

Dozens of other Palestinian prisoners are convicted of aiding in plots to kill Israelis, or involvement in failed attempts to orchestrate attacks.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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