As the inner cabinet held marathon talks on Monday night on a proposed Gilad Schalit prisoner swap, senior defense officials and IDF officers admitted that a mass release of security prisoners to the West Bank would give Hamas a substantial boost and create major operational challenges and danger for the State of Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi have in the past voiced their support to go ahead with the deal. Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin has also said in the past that he would support the swap, on the condition that the prisoners would not be released to the West Bank. Mossad chief Meir Dagan has in the past expressed opposition to the deal.
Ashkenazi's position was the same during the debate in 2008 ahead of the prisoner swap with Hizbullah in which Israel received the bodies of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Ashkenazi reportedly played a critical role in the cabinet meeting by convincing some ministers who were initially opposed to vote in favor of the deal.
One of the main issues that reportedly remains at the core of the cabinet's debate is whether Israel will allow some of the released terrorists to return to the West Bank. Hamas would naturally want some prisoners - particularly the senior ones - to return to the West Bank, where they would likely try and rebuild the terrorist group's infrastructure, which has been significantly damaged by continuous IDF operations in recent years.
"A massive release to the West Bank could alter the balance," said one IDF officer, who noted that in recent weeks the army has been facing an increase in terrorist activity in the territories, mostly sporadic stonings, stabbing attempts and Molotov cocktail attacks.
Another defense official said that while some of the prisoners released to the West Bank might once again engage in terrorism, the IDF had a "tight grip" on the West Bank and that together with the improved activity of the Palestinian Authority security forces there it would be difficult for Hamas to reestablish itself in the territory.
While there are no official statistics regarding how many freed prisoners engage in terrorism, a report published last year by The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reported that out of the more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel since 1985, over 50 percent have returned to the path of terror.
"In the terror acts committed by these freed terrorists, hundreds of Israelis were murdered, and thousands were wounded," the report said.
One example was the suicide attack in Cafe Hillel in the capital's German Colony neighborhood in 2003, in which seven people were killed including Dr. David Applebaum, head of Emergency Medicine at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, and his daughter Nava, who was to have been married the next day.
The bomber, Ramez Sali Abu Salim, from a village near Ramallah, had been released from an Israeli prison seven months earlier. He was sent by the Hamas command in Ramallah to perpetrate the attack.
Another example is Matsab Hashalmon, who was released in the Tannenbaum deal with Hizbullah in 2004. Following his release he recruited two terrorists to blow up a bus in Beersheba, killing 16 people.
According to the JCPA report, which quoted information provided by Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, those freed in the Tannenbaum deal have since been responsible for the murder of at least of 35 Israelis.
Due to these precedents, security officials, and particularly Diskin, have been in the past opposed to allowing the security prisoners to be released to the West Bank. One option is that the prisoners, at least the hardcore ones, be released to the Gaza Strip or to overseas.