By Crispian Balmer
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Even for a nation used to lopsided deals to secure the release of its captive soldiers, the accord Israel has negotiated with Islamist group Hamas to free sergeant Gilad Shalit is unique.
In return for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Hamas has said it will hand over a single man, Shalit, five years after he was captured just outside the Gaza Strip and dragged into confinement in the coastal enclave.
It was the highest ratio of any such deal in the last three decades and shows the astonishing lengths Israel will go to bring its soldiers home.
Jewish tradition counsels paying almost any ransom to free hostages and there was widespread joy in Israel at news of Shalit's imminent return.
Most Israeli families send their sons and daughters to serve in the conscript army and the government is well aware of the importance for the national psyche to do everything possible to bring them all home safely.
"Thy children shall come again to their own border," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quoting from the Book of Jeremiah, said in announcing the deal with Hamas, an Islamist group that rules Gaza and does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
But not everyone was happy, some Israelis fearing that the deal will encourage more hostage-taking in future and flood the Palestinian territories with hardened militants, who might in the future take up arms once more against Israel.
"I want to warn everybody who was involved in the deal, eventually the people released (will) kill Jews in the future," Isaac Maoz, the father of an Israeli girl who was killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing in 2001, told Reuters.
Shalit was 19 at the time of his capture and is now 25. The last sign of life received from the soldier was a videotape released by his captors in September 2009 showing him pleading for his life.
Hostage-taking has always posed a dilemma for Israelis, torn between wanting to bring home their kin and not wanting to appear weak by making concessions to their captors.
But time and again, when the military decides it cannot launch viable rescue missions, Israeli governments have ended up bowing to their enemies' demands and emptying their jails.
In the past three decades, Israel has released almost 7,000 various Arab prisoners in return for some 16 of its own nationals as well as the bodies of more than 10 others.
Neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians view most of their detainees in Israeli jails as prisoners of war. Israel defines many of them as terrorists.
There are no official statistics on what has happened to all the freed Arabs, but a 2008 report by the Israeli research group, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that about half of all militants, released for whatever reason since 1985, returned to militancy.
Former Mossad spy chief Meir Dagan was quoted in the Jerusalem Post this year as saying that prisoners released in 2004 in return for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum were subsequently responsible for killing more than 200 Israelis. An accusation that could not be independently verified.
The list of those set to be released this time around have yet to be announced, but Hamas has said it contains more than 300 Palestinians serving life terms for violent attacks.
Although the vast majority of the political establishment in Israel has endorsed the deal, some prominent voices have spoken out, including the army's former chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Ronsky. He warned of renewed attacks on Israel as a result of releasing so many prisoners.
"You can't bring an entire country to its knees, that's just crazy. It's complete surrender," he told the Ynet news service.
Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, welcomed the Shalit deal, but suggested that in future, the country should review its policy to make sure hostage-taking did not become "a tool to systematically exert pressure on the state of Israel."
Such dilemmas look certain to arise in the future, with Palestinian militants promising to capture more Israeli soldiers in future.
"The abduction of soldiers is our strategy," said Abu Mujahed, the spokesman of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, which took part in the operation to seize Shalit.
"This deal has sent a message to the Zionist enemy that (our) prisoners will only be freed through abduction of soldiers," he said.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem)