Analysis: For Israel, a low price to pay for a sign of life; for Hamas, a propaganda coup

Analysis A good deal fo

The price Israel has agreed to pay Hamas in exchange for a videotaped sign of life from abducted soldier Gilad Schalit is relatively low. Of the 20 female prisoners Israel has agreed to let go, 16 were slated to be released in the near future after completing their sentences, although 14 had been convicted for attempting to cause the deaths of Israelis. Four of the women are in custody pending trial, which will they will now evade. The prisoners include women like Rujina Riad Muhammad, convicted of plotting a crime and attempting to cause a death, and Nahada Farahat Dara, who was awaiting trial for assaulting a soldier and carrying a knife under suspicious circumstances. None of the prisoners are considered to be senior terrorist operatives, and none have actually killed or caused serious injury. For Hamas, however, struggling to rebuild Gaza in the wake of Operation Cast Lead and still suffering from a severe blow to its image among Gazans for its poor performance in the conflict, the release is a propaganda coup that could not have come at a better time. The women will be paraded before Gazans as "proof" of Hamas's "winning strategy" against a militarily superior foe. Lt.-Col. (ret). Anat Berko, author of The Path to Paradise - In the World of Suicide Bombers and their Dispatchers, is an expert on Palestinian security prisoners and has interviewed hundreds of them in the course of her research. As Berko told The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, the remaining security prisoners will now live in the hope that future kidnappings will set them free, too. On June 26, 2006, the day Schalit was abducted, Berko was interviewing female security prisoners, who became excited upon hearing of the kidnapping. "It was clear to them there would be a deal and they would be set free," Berko recalled. The days when Israel refused to negotiate with terrorists are long gone. The late Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had told Berko in prison in 1996 that their next meeting would take place in Gaza. Three months later, he was released. But this is the first time Israel has released prisoners for a sign of life, setting a potentially dangerous precedent. It would be wrong for decision makers to disregard the unimaginable pain and torment of the Schalit family. At the same time, the government must counterbalance the natural urge to assist them with a concern for the wider national interest. In the meantime, Palestinian security prisoners serving far heavier sentences than the 20 women who will soon be released will continue to study and attend religious and political classes in jail, while praying for their own impending release. Some have good reason to believe that their prayers will be answered.