The long road to repatriation

Stalled prisoner exchanges between Israel and the Arabs have hindered peace deals.


Palestinian women call for the release of relatives jailed in Israel during a demonstration in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus on July 5, 2008 [AFP]

The recent negotiations between Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah to repatriate prisoners of war are the latest episodes in a series of such exchanges since 1948. 

Since the first conflict, Israel has signed separate agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia for prisoner repatriation.

Lamis Andoni, Al Jazeera’s political analyst, said: “Parties at war with Israel have always had a better chance at securing a prisoner exchange than those who had signed peace agreements with them.

“Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, is yet to secure the release by Israel of all Jordanian prisoners.”

In 1956, Israel exchanged 5,500 Egyptian soldiers for four Israeli prisoners of war. Shortly after the end of the Six Day War in 1967, more than 400 Jordanian soldiers were exchanged for 15 Israeli soldiers. Tel Aviv also negotiated with Damascus when 527 Syrian prisoners were exchanged for one Israeli pilot.

The disproportionate numbers involved in the exchanges seem to have set the stage for some high profile deals between Israel and its Arab adversaries in the years following open warfare. 

Controversial deals

In May 1985, Israel released 1,500 Palestinian fighters from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held captive in Lebanon by Ahmad Jabril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).

The deal was considered controversial because some of the prisoners released went on to become leaders of the first and second intifadas, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual founding father of Hamas.

In July 1996, Hezbollah released the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Joseph Fink and Rahamim Alsheich, in exchange for the remains of 123 Lebanese soldiers.  

In the same year, Hezbollah also negotiated with the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a militia loyal to Israel, and released 25 of its members in exchange for 25 Lebanese prisoners from south Lebanon. 

In June 1998, Hezbollah returned the remains of an Israeli sergeant in exchange for the remains of 40 Hezbollah fighters, among them the son of Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, who was killed in 1997.  

Israel-Lebanon conflicts

Israeli protesters have called for the release of Goldwasser, Regev, and Shalit  [EPA] 

In January 2004, the largest prisoner exchange occurred when Israel released a total of 436 prisoners including 400 Palestinians, 23 Lebanese, two Syrians, three Moroccans, three Sudanese, a Libyan, and a German Muslim.  

Israel also returned the bodies of 59 Lebanese soldiers and in exchange received the remains of three Israeli soldiers and the release of Elhanan Tennenbaum who Hezbollah claimed was an Israeli intelligence officer.  

Sheikh Abdel Kareem Obaid, who Israel kidnapped from Lebanese territory in 1989, and Sheikh Mustafa Dirani, kidnapped in 1994, were among those released by Israel in exchange for its three soldiers and intelligence officer. 

In 2004, Hezbollah and Israel exchanged the bodies of three Israeli soldiers captured in 2000 and a kidnapped Israeli businessman for 400 Palestinian and 23 Lebanese and Arab prisoners in a deal negotiated by Germany. 

As part of the swap, Israel agreed to free Samir Kantar, a Lebanese prisoner who received jail sentences totaling 542 years from an Israeli court in 1980 for murdering an Israeli and his daughter.

Kantar was to be released at a later date in return for information on Ron Arad, an Israeli aviator declared dead by Hezbollah in July after being listed as missing since his plane was shot down in Lebanon in 1986.  

In July 2008, Israel and Hezbollah signed a UN-brokered deal to repatriate Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, two army reservists captured during a cross-border raid that triggered a war in Lebanon in 2006.

Hezbollah will also return the body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in southern Lebanon in 2006.

In return, Israel will also hand over the bodies of about 200 Arabs Israel said were killed while infiltrating northern Israel.

Gilad Shalit

Egypt has tried to broker a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas [AFP]

In June 2006, Hamas fighters captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and demanded the release of all female and minor Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange. 

Shalit’s capture has proven to be an obstacle in repeated efforts to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

It has also led to reprisals in Gaza in the summer of 2006 when the Israeli army launched Operation Summer Rains, a series of large-scale battles that killed at least 80 Palestinians. 

Israel said it would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and end the operation as soon as Shalit was released, however, Hamas said they would return Shalit in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel, including about 450 people serving sentences for killing Israelis.

Prolonged talks

Negotiations over Shalit’s release have been prolonged and complicated. 

Mahmoud Zahar, the co-founder of Hamas, said in an interview with Al Jazeera in May 2008: “Israel promises to release 1,000 prisoners.”

“In the first go, 450 Palestinians would be released and then we would give back Gilad Shalit.

“But in the end, we know the Israelis are only playing games with us.”

Zahar told Al Jazeera there will be no Gaza truce and no release of Shalit unless Israel lifts the Gaza blockade. 

Latest efforts to broker a deal included efforts by Jimmy Carter, the former US president, who discussed details of a prisoner-swap plan with Hamas leaders during a visit to the region.

Carter put forth a new list of Palestinian detainees to be exchanged, including Shalit, however disagreement was met over the number of prisoners that should be released. 


On June 19, Israel and Hamas reached a deal brokered by Egypt to cease hostilities and reopen Gaza border crossings. Israel would allow the transfer of fuel and other essential goods into Gaza.

Under the six-month ceasefire deal, Hamas is supposed to stop cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian groups in Gaza. In exchange, Israel is to ease its year-long siege of the Strip and halt military raids.

Israeli officials expressed hope that the reopening of the crossings would encourage Hamas to renew negotiations aimed at a prisoner swap for Shalit. 

With additional reporting by Adam Makary.



Source: Al Jazeera

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