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A skewed rate of exchange

india Updated: Oct 21, 2011 03:30 IST

Hindustan Times
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A ratio of 1 to 1,027 is a skewed one. The numbers, as anybody observing the latest spectacle in West Asia's political theatre would know, refer to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured and detained by Hamas in Gaza for the past five years, and the 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners released by the Israeli government as the price for Shalit's freedom as part of an Egypt-brokered deal. The first batch of 477 prisoners released on Tuesday returned home to an emotional welcome; another 550 will be released next month, though many are debarred from returning to their homes in Gaza or the West Bank and will be deported to a third country like Turkey, Syria or Qatar. The return of a wan, and somewhat underfed Shalit to his home in northern Israel set off the expected national frenzy, characteristic of much of the campaign by his family and the media to get him released.

The obviously off-balance 'exchange rate' - in a way indicative of the differing value of an individual's life on opposite sides of the fence - does not tell the whole story though. Mr Shalit's release had long been an emotive topic in a country where military service is compulsory, making it possible for every other person to identify with his fate. While Zionist blogs may have gone on an overdrive, celebrating the release of one "Jewish soul", the Israeli government - known for a history of lopsided prisoner exchanges - did deem it a fit price to secure Mr Shalit's freedom by releasing the prisoners, many of whom were serving life for killing Israelis in bomb and gun attacks. Hamas, on its part, has exhorted its followers to capture more Israeli soldiers who can be used for future negotiations to release the rest of the 5,000-odd Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons.

It is perhaps too early to ascertain what role this latest exchange will play in changing ground realities or in reducing the acrimony and suspicion that informs one of the most intractable problems in the world. Any political triumph for Hamas ends up weakening Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and the only one who can successfully negotiate with Israel, and the former's success in releasing the prisoners is obviously more tangible and immediate than Abbas's bid for Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations last month. Egypt, despite its domestic political upheavals, managed to score points vital in its role as an important political intermediary in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's gesture, on the other hand, in spite of all the popular support, only seems to confirm the notion that it is willing to pay a high price to secure the release of its hostages.