The latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians got underway last week in Washington, a development helped along by Israel’s controversial decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel has a long history of releasing prisoners, often on lopsided terms and typically in exchange for Israeli soldiers and civilians. In 1971, Israel traded a reservist, Shmuel Rosenwasser, who had been captured at his post at Metullah on New Year’s Eve, 1969. He was exchanged for Mahmoud Hidjazi, who was serving a life sentence and had initially been sentenced to death for his crimes. The exchange took place at the Lebanese border under the auspices of the International Red Cross.
In 1985, as part of the Jibril Agreement, Israel released 1,100 Palestinian prisoners — including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who would later become the spiritual leader of Hamas — in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in the early days of the 1982 Lebanon war. The Israelis were held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Yassin was imprisoned again in 1989, along with 150 other Hamas members. But in 1997, he was released again as part of a deal for two Mossad agents caught trying to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan. The deal included a caveat that Yassin not be involved in anymore terrorist activity, a caveat he disregarded. He was killed by Israeli rockets in 2004.
In 2004, Israel traded 435 Arab prisoners in return for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped and killed by Hezbollah in October 2000. In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, who was held captive for over five years.Israel has also released prisoners as a goodwill gesture, typically to jumpstart peace negotiations. In 1993, following the signing of the historic Oslo Accords in Washington, Israel released 680 prisoners.
In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon released 500 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. The prisoners were not involved in murderous acts against Israelis.
In 2008, Israel released over 430 prisoners in two stages. The second stage came in December, 2008 and was timed to coincide with the observance of Eid-al-Adha. Israel said it released prisoners without Jewish blood on their hands.