The Palestinian armed groups know that there is nothing that motivates the Israeli public and gets its attention as much as a kidnapped soldier or a hostage crisis. The release of Palestinian and Arab prisoners has been the quid pro quo for release or return of Israeli hostages for as long as Palestinian factions have been using this tactic. Even back during the 1970s during the notorious plane hijacking spree of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO): this was the first thing the hijackers always demanded.
The turning point came in the 1980s. In 1985 the Israeli government did something it had not done on such a scale before: Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to swap 1,150 Palestinian and Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails for three Israeli POW's held for three years in Lebanon. The deal became known as the "Jibril deal" — named for Ahmed Jibril, the Palestinian guerrilla leader who was holding the Israeli prisoners. Among those released at the time was the founder of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin. 800 of the 1,150 returned to the West Bank and Gaza and resumed fighting Israel.
Since then, there have been several prominent prisoner exchanges. Two years ago Israel traded Hezbollah 400 Palestinian and Arab prisoners for a kidnapped businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. All of this challenged the perceived notion that Israel "doesn't negotiate with terrorists.” It has and will continue to do so, if it means bringing home an Israeli held hostage or the body of a soldier killed in combat. That is the highest principle for the government and army here, stemming from their code of honor that you never leave the dead or wounded on the battlefield.
The Palestinians and others know this and take advantage of it. The principle has become, some Israelis argue, their nation's Achilles heal, leaving them vulnerable to kidnappers and their demands. Israelis would argue that they do do this, but never at the time that the captors issue their demands, but rather usually years later quietly when the hostage takers are no longer in the headlines.
The Palestinians for their part feel they are justified in kidnapping Israeli citizens and soldiers because, they argue, Israel detains and arrests thousands of Palestinians and hold many of them without trial for years. Right now more than 9,000 Palestinians sit in Israeli jails. Nearly every Palestinian family has at least one member serving in an Israeli jail — much just on suspected militancy — not all have "blood on their hands."
No issue resonates more with Palestinians than the prisoners' issue. More than 80 percent of Palestinian society polled since the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped June 25 think the armed groups (Hamas and two allies) were justified in taking the soldier hostage and do not think the kidnappers should release him without getting something, namely a prisoner release in return, even if it means enduring another Israeli invasion.
This kidnapping occurred as Hamas and its rivals in Fatah (Arafat's party) were discussing a deal that would in essence recognize Israel within the 1967 borders (a deal prisoners for these two groups signed in jail just days after the soldier's kidnapping). The reason the kidnapping occurred is not everyone on the Palestinian side wanted to see that deal go through. There are many rejectionist groups, especially outside the country, who do not want to see the Israelis and the Palestinians make peace or achieve a way of living side-by-side. Those Arab groups and the Iranians, instead, want to see the Palestinians keep fighting Israel believing they can eventually destroy and replace Israel in what they call historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrians host these groups and the Iranians, according to the Israelis, finance them. Even Hamas has a more hardline wing sitting in Damascus, which did not want to see the Hamas and Fatah compromise go through.
So the kidnapping had two goals: to achieve the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the provocation of Israel, so that the groups that had come up with the compromise — in essence recognizing Israel within certain borders — would be forgotten and overtaken. It may also have been a way to unite ALL Palestinians and the different armed factions which were on the verge of civil war two weeks ago. Those who carried out the kidnapping knew Israel's response would be harsh and now all the armed groups, Hamas and Fatah, are fighting side by side against an external enemy and not between themselves.
Jennifer Griffin is a Jerusalem-based correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Griffin joined FNC in 1999 and covers foreign policy and breaking news from Israel and across the Middle East.
Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) and is based out of the Washington D.C. bureau. She joined the network in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.