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From the field

Gilad Shalit, held hostage in Gaza for more than five years, released on 18 October 2011

On 25 June 2006, a group of eight armed Palestinians from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Israel, near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, and attacked a military post and tank. During the ensuing battle, two of the Palestinians – Muhammad Farwaneh and Hamed a-Rantisi – and two Israeli soldiers – Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker – were killed. The soldier Gilad Shalit, who was in the tank at the time of the attack, was abducted by the group and taken, apparently wounded, to the Gaza Strip.

According to media reports, the attack was a joint effort of three organizations: the Popular Resistance Committees, the Hamas military wing (the 'Iz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades), and the Islamic Army. A few days after the attack, the media reported that the abductors were demanding, in exchange for Shalit, the release of one thousand Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons. The abductors implied a threat (explicit in some reports) to execute Shalit if their demand was not met. Subsequently, extensive negotiations, mediated by Egypt, began between Israel and the Hamas leadership, which represented the abductors. The negotiations, centering on the details of the exchange based on the demands set by the abductors, continued, on and off, for more than five years.

The location where Shalit was held has not been published. According to various Hamas spokesmen, he was held in proper conditions. However, it was impossible to verify these claims while Shalit was being held, as the abductors refused to allow representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross, or any other international player, to visit him. As yet (3 Nov. 2011), no clear information has been published on the conditions in which Shalit was held.

Following Shalit's release, his family issued statements to media indicating that he had, at first, been subjected to harsh treatment, but was treated better later on. Upon examination following his release, Shalit was found to have a vitamin deficiency resulting from lack of exposure to daylight, and the wounds he suffered in the battle had not been fully treated. It was also reported that the nearsighted Shalit had not been provided eyeglasses by his captors, that he had dropped ten kilograms in weight due to insufficient nutrition, and that he had been allowed limited access to radio and television.

International humanitarian law recognizes, subject to certain conditions, the right of parties taking part in hostilities to capture combatants of the opposing side and hold them until the hostilities end, but only with the objective of removing them from combat. States may also arrest combatants belonging to the other side, and, under certain conditions, civilians as well, who are suspected of having committed criminal offenses, for the purpose of prosecuting them.

Contrarily, seizing a person (civilian or combatant) and holding him or her forcibly with the objective of pressuring the other side to meet certain demands is absolutely prohibited, and is considered hostage taking. This act is much more grievous when it is accompanied by a threat to kill or injure the hostage if the hostage-takers' demands are not met. Furthermore, breach of the prohibition is deemed a war crime, for which everyone involved in the act bears personal criminal responsibility. The circumstances in which Shalit was abducted and held clearly indicate that he was taken hostage.

Regardless of the question of the legality of the seizure or status of the person who is seized, international humanitarian law states that every person is entitled to be treated humanely and in a dignified manner by the opposing side, whatever the circumstances. Prisoners of war are entitled to a variety of other rights, among them to right to receive visits by the ICRC. Given that Shalit was entitled to the status of POW, denial of his right to these visits also constituted a flagrant breach of international law. Moreover, the refusal to allow visits and cutting Shalit off totally from the outside world prevented suitable monitoring of the manner in which his captors treated him and of the quality of the medical treatment he received.

In light of the above, B'Tselem repeatedly stated that the Hamas government, which effectively controls the security apparatuses in the Gaza Strip, was obligated to release Shalit unconditionally, and, until that time, to treat him humanely and enable members of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit him.

In October 2011, five years and four months after Shalit's abduction, Hamas and Israel reached an agreement, mediated by German and Egyptian officials, for his release. The agreement was signed in Egypt on 11 October.

On 18 October, Shalit was taken to Egypt and from there to Israel. Simultaneously, 450 Palestinian prisoners in Israel were released. In the second stage of the agreement, which is to take place in December 2011, Israel is supposed to release another 550 prisoners.