There has been much talk lately of Germany negotiating a deal for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit. The Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Palestinian militants in June 2006 and is reportedly being held by Hamas. The negotiations are supposedly being conducted by Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND. The accent in the English-language reports has been placed on the “help” being provided by Germany to the Israelis. Little attention has been paid to the benefits that Hamas might expect to obtain from the German efforts.
A headline in the August 27 edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) offers a different perspective. “Hamas is Counting on the Germans,” it reads. The German verb used in the headline is “hoffen”: literally, “to hope.” In the print edition, the article is accompanied by a photo of two young Israeli women staring upwards toward the sky on the background of a banner featuring Gilad Shalit’s portrait and the Israeli flag. The women’s hands are bound and their arms are outstretched in a beseeching gesture. The photo appears directly below the headline, thus creating an odd situation of cognitive dissonance. It is as if the two beseeching Israeli women were supposed to be Hamas members. The online version of the article uses a less symbolically-loaded photo of Israeli demonstrators. But given the juxtaposition of title and image, it too suggests a bizarre identity between the “hopes” of the Israelis and the “hopes” of Hamas.
FAZ correspondent Hans-Christian Rößler notes that Egypt had already undertaken efforts to obtain Shalit’s release before Germany got involved. “But from the beginning the Egyptian attempts at mediation came up against a difficulty,” Rößler explains. “On account of its harsh treatment of the Islamist Muslim Brothers in its own country, the Egyptian government was not regarded as an impartial broker by Hamas in Gaza.”
Evidently, the German government poses no such problems — to Hamas — in this regard.
Hamas is reportedly demanding the release of some 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the liberation of Shalit. According to the FAZ, the names on the Hamas “wish list” include not only Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences for murder in Israel, but also that of the planner of the 2002 Passover suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya, which left 30 Israeli civilians dead.
It should be recalled that in recent years Germany has already negotiated two so-called “prisoner exchanges” between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. In 2004, Israel released over 400 prisoners in exchange for the release of the kidnapped Israeli businessman Elchanan Tannenbaum and the repatriation of the corpses of three IDF soldiers. One of the prisoners released by Israel was Stefan Smyrek, a German Hezbollah recruit who has admitted to planning a suicide attack in Israel. Last year, Israel released five prisoners, including the infamous Lebanese Druze terrorist Samir Kuntar, in exchange for the repatriation of the corpses of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Prior to the exchange, it was not yet known if Regev and Goldwasser were alive or dead.
Last weekend, the German news site Spiegel-Online (SPON) published a hagiographic account of the BND’s efforts to obtain Shalit’s release. Significantly, the article appears to have thus far been published only in English — as if SPON were doing international public relations for the BND. SPON’s German-language pages contain only a much shorter and drier dispatch announcing that the BND has made a “concrete suggestion” for a prisoner exchange: namely, 450 Palestinians prisoners in exchange for Shalit. The English-language report appears under the heading “The Honest Broker from Berlin.” It includes such promotional gems as “the German government has a reputation for not pursuing its own foreign policy agenda in the Middle East” and “since the Germans began their participation, Gilad Shalit’s parents have been full of optimism again.” Both the English-language and the German-language SPON reports claim that Germany is acting “at the request” of the Israeli government. No source is given for this claim.
There is evidence, however, that the request in fact came from other quarters. Thus, citing unnamed sources in Gaza City, FAZ correspondent Hans-Christian Rößler writes:
Since the Israeli military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the year, the ruling Islamists there are supposed already to have signaled their interest in German help. …
When asked about the reported German mediation efforts at a joint press conference with Angela Merkel in Berlin last week, a noticeably tight-lipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu merely described the German activity as “well-meaning.” (See the video here, 16:40-17:04.) He did not “thank” Chancellor Merkel for the German efforts, as the SPON report suggests. By contrast, in an interview with the German wire service DPA on the same day, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan enthusiastically acknowledged the German involvement. “We’re now waiting for the Germans to speak with the Israelis and then get back to us,” he said. The DPA report bears the revealing headline “Hamas Satisfied with German Mediators.”
On Sunday, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, Prime Minister Netanyahu advised his cabinet to ignore recent media reports on an impending release of Shalit, noting that such reports contained “exaggeration, incomplete and false information.”