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Israeli Reports Say Major Prisoner Swap Imminent

Court papers indicate Jewish state could release 980 prisoners as part of the agreement

Luis Ramirez

News reports in Israel are quoting court documents as saying the Israeli government could release nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in a possible exchange agreement between Israel and the militant group Hamas.  The deal, if it goes through, would result in the release of an Israeli soldier captured by militants in Gaza three years ago.

Israel wants Hamas to release Sergeant Gilad Shalit, a young soldier captured in a cross-border raid and taken to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip three years ago.

In exchange, Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released, including some who were responsible for terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Many people in Israel have come to see Gilad Shalit as a national hero.  His name, and young, thin face appear on banners, billboards, and bumper stickers. 

The desire for his release is unanimous in Israel.

A U.S. born Israeli, Debbie Last, has been coming to hold vigil and gather signatures at a tent that is set up a few meters from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem.

"Everybody has got a piece.  Everybody feels connected to Gilad and his parents, everybody in this country," Last said.

Israel's government has instituted a news blackout on the possible exchange, which is being mediated by Egypt and Germany.  Court papers this week, however, indicated the Jewish state could release 980 prisoners as part of the agreement.

Although the desire to see the young soldier free is unanimous, not everyone in Israel agrees that freeing convicted terrorists is the price to pay.

Relatives of those who died in terror attacks have petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court demanding the government release the names of those it plans to release.  For Israel, there is no guarantee that any of those who are freed will embrace non-violence.

Rojena Jinajira is a 23-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank community of Beituniya who was among 20 women that Israel freed in exchange for a video showing that Shalit was alive in September.   The video was aired in early October. 

Jinajira was imprisoned for trying to stab an Israeli soldier last year.  She says she is cynical of any peace effort.  For her, it is the use of force, like that of the kidnapping of Shalit, that in her view has brought results for the Palestinians.  She says the impending release of prisoners is an example of this.

Jinajira says Palestinians spent years negotiating pursuing non-violence, and she says they achieved nothing.  She said that in her view, armed struggle does achieve something.  She points to the nearly 1,000 prisoners who will be released in exchange for one soldier.

She admires how an entire nation has stood behind one soldier and wishes the Palestinians would do the same for each of the thousands of Palestinians who are in Israeli prisons. 

Israeli news reports have speculated that among those who may be on the list of prisoners to be released is Marwan Barghouti, a prominent activist serving life in prison for the murders of Israelis and widely favored as a candidate for the Palestinian presidency.  In a recent prison cell interview, he ruled out negotiation as the only means of achieving peace and called for popular action.

Debbie Last, volunteering for Gilad Shalit's release, says she is not comfortable with the thought of setting convicted terrorists free.  But she says that to her, the life of one Israeli soldier is worth the risk.

"There are no words to describe the feeling of wanting to see this boy back home," Last said.

In this dilemma, the best she and all of Israel can do is hope the only consequence of a prisoner exchange will be peace.

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