Avi Issacharoff
October 17, 2011 - 12:00am

In the debate on the prisoner exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, many Israelis identify with the suffering of the Shalit family and feel a duty to return a captive soldier, while others feel anger over the release of murderers who slaughtered hundreds of Israelis.

Symbolism has also received a lot of attention, but the issue that has been shoved aside in the debate - and it will surely be raised in Monday's petitions to the High Court of Justice - is the risk posed by the prisoners being set free.

The last time a possible deal on Shalit came to a head, in December 2009, the chief of the Shin Bet security service at the time, Yuval Diskin, argued that a massive release of terrorists into the West Bank would severely affect Israelis' safety. Meir Dagan, then the head of the Mossad espionage agency, said such a deal, the one on the table, would hand a victory to the "opposition camp" in the Arab world.

But Dagan and Diskin's successors took precisely the opposite stance in the current round of negotiations on Shalit. Mossad head Tamir Pardo told the cabinet last week that Israel was strong enough to deal with the release of 1,000 Arab prisoners.

The current Shin Bet chief, Yoram Cohen, agreed that the defense establishment could handle the risk the releases posed in the West Bank and minimized the importance of the prisoners who were being sent to Gaza.

Cohen's assessment was seconded by a senior Israel Defense Forces officer a few months ago regarding the return of "100 to 150 terrorists to the West Bank." In the end, the number in the deal is 110, including 14 to East Jerusalem. About half those returning to their homes rather than receiving expulsions are from Hamas.

Reserve intelligence officer Ronen Cohen told Haaretz, on Sunday, he thought most of the freed Hamas prisoners would be absorbed into the group's political wing.

"Their contribution to terror will be relatively small," he said. "You have to remember that the ones returning to the West Bank are under close security supervision by Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

These assessments are disputed by officials such as Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, a former IDF chief of staff and former military intelligence chief.

He reminded the cabinet last week that a prisoner swap in 1985 was followed by the murder of 178 Israelis. Defense officials who oppose the current swap warn that the "small fries" among the released security prisoners are actually most likely to revive the terrorist infrastructure, using the knowledge they amassed in prison.

Israeli intelligence officials have also raised the prospect that prisoners denied release could direct a wave of terrorism from their prison cells.

A senior Palestinian security source said it was just a matter of time before another Israeli soldier is abducted in an effort to negotiate the release of the remaining prisoners.


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