EU to celebrate Shalit swap despite concerns

18.10.11 @ 08:04

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

The EU is set to cheer the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, expected on Tuesday (19 October), despite concerns it could pave the way for military strikes on Hamas and Iran.

  • Hamas poster. The 25-year-old is to be reunited with his family after five years and four months of complete isolation (Photo: Tom Spender)

According to plans negotiated by Egyptian, German and Israeli intelligence, Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian militant group Hamas five years ago, will be handed over to the Red Cross in Gaza before noon local time.

The NGO will take him via the Rafah crossing point to a secure area in Egypt's Sinai peninsula for 15 to 20 minutes and then to Israel via the Kerem Shalom point. Israel will at each stage of the process release tranches of 477 Palestinian prisoners. A second set of 550 prisoners is to be freed in December.

The deal was finalised by Egyptian security chief Murad Muwafi and the new head of Israeli military intelligence Yoram Cohen. But the blueprint for the handover was drawn up by Gerhard Conrad, currently the chief of staff in the German intelligence service, the BND.

BND spokesman Dieter Arndt told EUobserver Conrad worked on the plan for the past two and a half years. "Almost the whole draft of the contract was done by Conrad. It was a long term involvement, but the final glory belongs to Egypt alone," he said.

Arndt noted that Conrad took off his BND hat for the work before returning to the service: "It was a personal thing. He was not acting on behalf of the federal government of Germany or the BND, but on behalf of all sides, Israel and Hamas, for the whole time the negotiations were going on." EU governments are banned from negotiating with Hamas because it is on the union's blacklist of terrorist entities.

The EU last week endorsed the deal on humanitarian grounds. "I warmly welcome the news that Gilad Shalit will soon be able to return home after five years of captivity, putting an end to the long ordeal that he and his family have endured," foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton said.

An EU diplomat earlier told this website Shalit's release could help with EU endorsement of Palestine's bid to upgrade its UN status and reopen the question of delisiting Hamas from the terrorist register.

But despite the atmosphere of good will, some commentators believe the Shalit swap spells trouble for the region.

"Speaking as someone who has been involved in these things [Israel-Hamas prisoner swaps] in the past, I don't think we are moving toward any kind of reconciliation between Israel and Hamas. What usually happens afterwards is that the Israeli government gives Hamas a whack to show that it's still strong. If I was Hamas, I wouldn't leave any of my top leaders out in the open after this," one former EU diplomat said.

For his part, Israeli journalist Alex Fishman, reputed to have close ties to Israeli security chiefs, in an op-ed last week said the Shalit deal is designed to "clear the desk" of the Israeli government for a strike against Iran's alleged nuclear bomb facilities. "The Europeans will be applauding us, and no less importantly it will boost the national consensus and the prime minister's image ahead of the next challenge [Iran]," he wrote.

Some recent developments on the international stage support Fishman's line.

US President Barack Obama at the UN general assembly in September gave Israel carte blanche for action against security threats. The US and the EU have upped anti-Iran rhetoric by accusing it of helping Syria to kill protesters and by exposing an alleged plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington. They have also backed the rebellion against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, Iran's main ally.

Alon Ben-David, a senior Israeli defence journalist, cast doubt on the Shalit-Iran link, however.

He said the US and the EU are planning to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. If these do not stop Tehran's nuclear programme, the next opportunity for military action will come only when the weather improves in spring next year. "Iran is an extremely serious issue. Whether Israel launches an operation against Iran has nothing to do with Shalit," he told EUobserver.

Ben-David agreed that Israel is likely to strike Hamas after the Shalit swap to show who is boss. But he noted the new Egypt-Hamas-Israel "mechanism" bodes well: "I don't think this will be used for anything political. But all parties have developed more trust. We have a new mechanism for negotiating humanitarian issues if there is a military clash."