Note to readers: I wrote this late last night, and then I woke up and saw that Israeli novelist David Grossman, in a front page "over the headline" article in Haaretz, has called Israel to change its attitude towards Hamas, to move beyond the "we don't negotiate with terrorists" crap that it has been dishing out for umpteen years, in fact, to make the switch that it made with the PLO. Grossman certainly is not a fan of Hamas (neither am I) but he is a fan of dealing with bona fide representatives of the Palestinians and getting out of the deep freeze. When it is translated into English, I will give you the link.
There should have been a prisoner exchange a long time ago for Gilad Shalit. In fact, it would have been better had Israel freed Palestinian prisoners as part of a general amnesty in order to improve the chances for a comprehensive settlement. I say this because, as Gideon Levy points out here, even if all Palestinian prisoners are freed, Hamas will do its best to kidnap more Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips, as Israel has kidnapped Lebanese civilians to use as bargaining chips. Let us face it; the only difference between Shalit and many of the Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails is that the latter have better prison conditions than the former. Both Israel and Hamas are guilty of throwing people into jail who should not be there, although only Israel is guilty of jailing an entire population. Until there is a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians the sides will be throwing each other in the clink to pressure the other side.
The reason why Bibi does not do a prisoner exchange with Hamas has nothing to do with the fear that Jews will die as a result – that is the line that he says to play to his base -- but because he wants to do everything he can to demonize Hamas, so that it help keep the Palestinians divided and makes it easier to control Gaza (and concentrate on the West Bank) A prisoner exchange will be viewed as a victory for Hamas, and while Bibi seems to like giving them victories (witness the gradual easing of the blockade), it is the sort of victory that will make them look like reasonable partners and not al-Qaeda terrorists.
What is interesting, though not surprising, is the number of Israelis who are opposed to the exchange of prisoners, despite the fact that Israel can always "round up twice the usual suspects" and has done so many times in the past. Haaretz published a very interesting article last Shabbat in which it was suggested that a sharp rise in the number of youths arrested for throwing rocks in the Hebron area can be correlated to the introduction of police software that rewards the police for taking the initiative to make arrests. (I will be grateful to the reader who provides a link to the article.) Some of the youths arrested are beaten and abused, according to their testimony, the testimony of human rights groups, and of sources within the police themselves. Yet, as is the case in totalitarian societies, investigations, when conducted, invariably support the versions of the police. Naturally, most Israelis don't care about any of the Palestinians beaten. But a hardened heart is a hardened heart. And so it is not surprising to hear how many don't care about the death of Gilad Shalit – for failure to release him will almost certainly doom him -- because they have convinced themselves that letting Palestinian prisoners go will encourage more kidnappings – as if Hamas hasn't tried to kidnap soldiers throughout this whole period, or as if Israel didn't itself effectively kidnap Palestinians – fingered by sometimes unwilling collaborators, always appearing before a military court.
What should be done? Well, without any relation to the Shalit business, Israel should a) recognize Hamas as the elected representatives of the Palestinian people and b) free their politicians and legislators from Israeli jails and let them take their rightful positions. Of course, Israel may want to get something in return for this, but the important thing is to take two steps. And, most important, Israel should express a willingness to sit down and talk with the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, whoever they may be. All of these measures will be partial until a final settlement.
The Hamas leader Abu Tir is being expelled from Israel after having served time in jail. And what was his crime? He won an election that Israel authorized. It is not because he is a member of Hamas that he was jailed and will be expelled, because he was a member of Hamas before the election, and Israel did not do anything about him. He won, so he is jailed and expelled.
Now what will motivate Hamas more to kidnap IDF soldiers? A prisoner release? Or Israel expelling Palestinian elected officials like Abu Tir?