Israel's Shalit day: joy mixed with bitterness

JERUSALEM Tue Oct 18, 2011 8:21am EDT

Gilad Shalit (R) is hugged by his father Noam at Tel Nof air base in central Israel in this handout released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) October 18, 2011.  REUTERS/GPO/Handout

Gilad Shalit (R) is hugged by his father Noam at Tel Nof air base in central Israel in this handout released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) October 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/GPO/Handout

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis whose daughters, sons, fathers and mothers were killed in Palestinian attacks are facing an ordeal of fresh grief that nothing can alleviate, not even the national celebration of a lost soldier's homecoming.

The release on Tuesday of hundreds of Palestinian militants from Israeli jails in exchange for one Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit, marked a moment of relief and joy for the great majority in both camps. The most optimistic even see in it a flicker of hope for eventual peace in the Middle East.

But for some it only reopens deep emotional wounds, stirring bitterness and anger.

"Raise a black flag over your house... it's a day of mourning," Shalit's father was told by Shvuel Schijveschuurder, whose parents and three siblings died in the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria in 2001.

Schijveschuurder was arrested last week for spraying a Tel Aviv monument with graffiti demanding the release of the Jewish extremist who assassinated the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed in 1995 for trying to make peace.

Shalit's father was 'twisting the knife', said Yosi Tsur, whose son Assaf was killed in a Palestinian attack in Haifa. He should not have shown his face at the Supreme Court hearing where families opposed to the swap tried, in vain, to block it.

"I am angry. It should not have ended this way," said Yitzhak Maoz, whose daughter was one of 15 Israelis killed in the Jerusalem pizzeria attack.

A young Palestinian woman sentenced to 16 life terms for collecting the explosives and driving the bomber to the pizzeria is among those freed in the prisoner trade for Shalit, who was held by Islamist militants of the Hamas movement for over five years, imprisoned alone somewhere in the Gaza Strip.

Ahlam Tamimi, now 32, was a reporter with local television before joining the armed wing of Hamas to take part in attacks. She is among 300 lifers now amnestied. She will not go home to the West Bank but into exile, along with 200 other Palestinians who Israelis say have 'blood on their hands'.

Some have spent 30 years behind bars. One is 78 years old.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the terms of the swap last week, after three years of negotiations with Hamas over who could and who would never be set free. Approving the final list was "a difficult decision," he said.

Many Israelis sympathize. "Nobody envies Benjamin Netanyahu today," wrote Jerusalem-based columnist Uri Dromi.

"The decision he made is contrary to everything he believed in ... he has always been closer to the American position: Zero tolerance to terror, no negotiations with the terrorists."

So far the political gamble has paid off. Opinion polls on Tuesday showed an overwhelming majority in favor of bringing home the soldier known as "everyone's son." Shalit was hardly more than a boy of 19 when abducted. Israelis last saw his face in a typical hostage video in 2009, pleading for release.

But Gaza militants, claiming triumph over the Zionists, say their "victory" will spur them on to seize more Jewish hostages, in order to liberate all Palestinians imprisoned over the years in the cause of ending Israeli occupation in lands the Jewish state took in a 1967 war.

Much has been made of the thousand-to-one imbalance of the prisoner trade. But it reflects the reality. Shalit was the only Israeli in Palestinian hands, while 6,000 Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel, mostly for violence they say is justified as resistance to occupation by a far stronger adversary, of which the young tank corps corporal was a living symbol.

Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in a three-week war in 2008-09 in which 13 Israeli lives were lost. Israel was widely condemned for using disproportionate force.

At bottom, however, the debate over this exchange is less about disproportionate numbers than about the political expedience of negotiation and amnesty. It divides those who see hope of peace with the Palestinians from those who believe only superior force can secure Israel's future.

The graffiti on Rabin's defaced memorial in Tel Aviv included the slogan "Price Tag," the calling-card of hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank who vow never to cede land they consider a Biblical birthright.

Outside the Supreme Court on Monday, other Israelis defended the swap. "Peace defeats terror," read one of their signs.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller. Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Janet McBride)

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