IDF Readies for Shalit's Return and Release of Prisoners to West Bank

It has been 26 years since IDF prisoners were last returned alive to Israel.

The manpower division of the Israel Defense Forces, along with the IDF medical command, have carried out extensive work in recent years in anticipation of the day when Gilad Shalit would be freed from captivity.

The preparations centered around assistance to be provided to the soldier - who is technically still an IDF soldier - upon his hand over to Israeli authorities and his return to Israel. After the deal for his release is carried out, the army also intends to address moral and ethical questions that other IDF soldiers may raise.

IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006

The IDF Central Command and the Shin Bet security service have already put together plans in anticipation of the situation in the West Bank following the release of hundreds of terrorists and their transfer to the West Bank.

It has been 26 years since IDF prisoners were last returned alive to Israel. In May 1985, the Israeli government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command were involved in a prisoner release which brought home three Israeli soldiers who were captured during the First Lebanon War. In the years since, extensive research and experience has accumulated in Israel and abroad on the treatment of former prisoners of war.

The IDF can also look back to the cases of captives returned from Egypt and Syria in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the past, the process has involved the captives' reintegration as IDF soldiers in uniform. The returning prisoners also underwent security questioning in an effort to learn what they experienced in captivity and what information they may have provided their captors.

Avi Ori, who is now the rehabilitation director at the Reuth Medical Center and a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Tel Aviv University - and was himself taken prisoner during the Yom Kippur War - was a member of the team that met with soldiers freed following the First Lebanon War. He said he was also initially approached by the IDF two years ago to help the army prepare for Shalit's release.

"We don't know what [Shalit's] condition is or what he knows about what has happened here over the past five years. They will have to be very flexible during the entire process, not rushing to question him, but instead need to carry out preliminary medical examinations and allow him to go into the embrace of family and friends and recover. Only after that should more thorough examinations be carried out, starting also with the support of mental health experts, and leaving intelligence and field security matters for later, if [they are done] at all," Ori said.

In the past, many returning prisoners have complained bitterly about how they were handled on their return to Israel, particularly regarding their reintegration into the IDF and their questioning by intelligence officers, which they said prompted guilt feelings.

In the next several days, the IDF will have to decide who will receive Shalit - apparently in Cairo. That team will be the first Israelis he will have encountered since he was taken captive in 2006. It appears that his family will not be going to Egypt but will be reunited with him in Israel instead.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Elazar Stern, who headed the IDF manpower division when Shalit was captured, said yesterday that the necessary plans were prepared quite some time ago regarding what would be done for Shalit on his return.

The defense establishment will also have to make preparations for the return to the West Bank of hundreds of Hamas prisoners, which could substantially change the dynamic of terrorist threats from the territory. Over quite an extended period of time, terrorist operatives have been virtually absent from the West Bank. As a result, there was opposition in the past - particularly from Shin Bet - to prior versions of a proposed prisoner swap for Shalit's release.

Nonetheless, the assessment of the IDF and Shin Bet is that, as a result of the coordination that currently exists with Palestinian Authority security services and Israel's intelligence penetration among the Palestinian population, they don't expect a substantial change in the level of terrorist activity in the near future.