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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 06:42 | SYDNEY
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Gilad Shalit is free, but there's no escape for Israelis and Palestinians

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20 October 2011 16:13

The joy of most Israelis at the release of Gilad Shalit is giving way to anger about the condition in which he was released. 

The images of a gaunt and weak Shalit (above), reportedly suffering from malnutrition and lack of exposure to natural light, contrast with images (below) of the first group of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for the Israeli soldier's freedom. I know from talking to former Palestinian detainees in the past that Israeli prisons are hardly holiday camps. But that only serves to underline how appalling the conditions that Shalit endured for over five years must have been. 

It is not entirely clear why Israel and Hamas reached a deal on Shalit now after so many failed attempts — or even if the deal was significantly different from what had been on the table in the past — but Shalit can probably thank shifting local and regional politics for his release. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu may have been looking for a political victory at home after months of socio-economic protests. Netanyahu may have also feared that changing politics in Egypt after Mubarak's overthrow meant he had a narrowing window to do a deal using Egyptian mediation. 

Hamas, meanwhile, had reason to fear Arab-uprising-style protests of its own, as its rule in Gaza has become increasingly unpopular. The position of Hamas' leadership in Syria has also become more fragile as a result of the uprising there. Iran wants Hamas to publicly back the regime of its key strategic ally, Bashar al-Assad, but Hamas shares fraternal ties with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of popular efforts to overthrow the Assad regime. There are reports that the Hamas leadership is looking to relocate to Cairo and that the Shalit deal may have been part of the price.

In short, therefore, do not expect the Shalit deal to be any kind of circuit breaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

It will not lead to any greater willingness by Israel to negotiate with Hamas, or for Hamas to soften its stance towards Israel. In fact, the big loser here (once again) is the one person the Israelis say they would be prepared to negotiate with, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The prisoner release has overshadowed Abbas' effort, opposed by Israel and the US but popular among Palestinians, to take Palestinian ambitions for statehood directly to the UN Security Council. 

So while the tangible fruit of Hamas' negotiations with Israel are now (mostly) returning to their families in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas' largely symbolic effort is yet to be put to a vote and in any event faces an American veto.

Shalit's release has also revived the memory of one of the saddest and most searing experiences of my three-year posting to Israel as an Australian diplomat. One of the Palestinians released in exchange for Shalit was Ahlam Tamimi. Tamimi was an organiser of the suicide bombing at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001 that killed fifteen people. Among the victims was 15-year old Malka Roth, whose family had emigrated to Israel from Melbourne. I attended Malka's funeral as a representative of the Australian government (I was charge d'affaires at the time). Malka's family, among others, unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli Government not to release the killers of their loved ones. 

Ten years after Malka Roth was murdered, Gilad Shalit is free, but there is still little prospect that Israelis and Palestinians will escape this conflict.

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