In a dramatic turn of events late on Tuesday, it was announced that Hamas and Israel had agreed to a prisoner swap. In return for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel has agreed to free a total of 1,032 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. The number of prisoners exchanged is certainly asymmetrical but both Hamas and Israel are quietly claiming a victory. By KHADIJA PATEL
After years of unsuccessful haggling, the release of Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for the last five years, has been secured. Shalit’s release has been won in a prisoner-swap deal that will see 1,032 Palestinian prisoners freed from Israeli prisons over the next two months. The exact details of the deal remain unclear but Khaled Meshal, the exiled Hamas leader indicated that the “first stage” would take place within one week. According to Meshal, 450 prisoners would be released during the first phase, while another 550 prisoners would be released in the second phase, set to take place in two months. Meshal said that the Palestinians had accorded priority to those prisoners who have been in Israeli prisons for tens of years.
After a five-hour meeting on Wednesday, the Israeli government formally approved the deal but not without opposition. The agreement was backed by 26 ministers, three ministers voted against it. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, infrastructure minister Uzi Landau and strategic affairs minister Moshe Yaalon all opposed the deal. The deal has been termed the most lopsided in history by some analysts, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamen Netanyahu insists it was the most advantageous solution for Israel. “I believe we reached the best possible agreement at this time,” Netanyahu is reported to have said.
Shalit’s capture has been a blot on the Israeli conscience. The Israeli government has for years faced criticism from its people for failing to do more to secure Shalit’s release. His release will certainly prove a boost for Netanyahu’s government but the high price to pay for Shalit’s return is already sorely lamented by the Israeli right. Consternation has however been launched at the news that 280 of the Palestinian prisoners to be released have been jailed for life on murder charges. The names of the Palestinian prisoners to be released will only be publicised on Saturday, but Israeli President Shimon Peres has already been presented with a list of names to whom he will have to grant a pardon.
As the Israeli government begins to pick at the finer details of the agreement, Hamas has wasted no time in announcing the agreement as a victory for the Palestinian people. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader exiled in Syria, has confirmed that the Israelis had agreed to turn over 1,027 Palestinians, among them 315 prisoners sentenced to life in prison, as well as 27 women and a number of minors. Early reports that Marwan Barghouti, who is considered a popular leader in both Gaza and the West Bank and a possible successor to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would be among those released, have now been rejected by Israeli sources. Barghouti’s release would have proven an added challenge to Abbas’ attempts to win over the Palestinian people. Previous negotiations that did not secure Barghouti’s release have failed, leading some to question why Hamas has capitulated this time.
Besides the greater conflict with Israel, Hamas is also fighting a political battle against Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. Fatah of course enjoys Western approbation, while Hamas has been blacklisted as a terrorist organisation; but it is Hamas that has held the sway over the Palestinan people in recent times. The Palestinian Authority’s bid to gain recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations has however warmed Abbas to many Palestinian people. Analysts point out that a surge in popularity for Abbas and Fatah may prove an insurmountable challenge to Hamas. Securing the release of one eighth of the Palestinian prison population in Israel is a statement of strength. With this deal, Hamas has cleverly displayed one-upmanship over Fatah and Abbas. Officially, however, Hamas has emphasised Palestinian unity, indicating that all factions of Palestinian society were reflected in the list of prisoners to be released.
The spectacular leaks from the Palestine Papers on Al-Jazeera last January proved that Abbas and Fatah had previously obstructed previous negotiations. In their own words it was revealed that Abbas and the PA preferred to keep Palestinians in Israeli prisons than to let Hamas have “victory”. It would appear that this deal has gone through a particular lack of interference from Abbas.
Officially, Fatah and Hamas are now meant to have patched up their differences towards the greater good. Earlier this year the rival Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation agreement that was hailed as an important step towards achieving peace for the Palestinian people. While many doubt the integrity of the reconciliation agreement, the prisoner-swap deal may prove to be a product of Palestinian unity. Abbas speaking from South America, where he is seeking to curry support for his statehood bid, said that that the Palestinian Authority welcomed the agreement. “We welcome this deal that we have waited for a long time, and I express hope that all the prisoners to be released soon,” he said from Caracas. To further demonstrate the goodwill between Hamas and Fatah, Gaza’s de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haneya briefed Abbas on the details of the deal.
Yet even without the meddling hand of Abbas, Israel and Hamas have failed to agree to terms to secure Shalit’s release. Several deals have previously stalled over the issue, of which prisoners would be released, and to where. This time though, an Egyptian mediation seems to have succeeded. The timing however is yet to be explained, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed official in Netanyahu’s office as saying that “a brief window of opportunity has been opened” that could lead to Gilad Shalit’s release. The official added: “The window appeared following fears that collapsing Mid-East regimes and the rise of extremist forces would make Gilad Shalit’s return impossible.”
After Shalit is returned to his home and the politicians have all won their kudos, the tit for tat war in this conflict is set to draw on anyway. After the release of the 1,032 prisoners, some six thousand more Palestinian prisoners will continue languish in Israeli prisons. Their crimes range from stone throwing to masterminding militant attacks. Two thousand of those prisoners have been on a hunger strike for the last two weeks, in hopes of Israel improving jail conditions. The prisoners seek an end to the solitary confinement of 20 imprisoned leaders. They are also demanding that Israel allow prisoners to take university courses and give them access to Arab TV channels. Israel had decided to revoke those privileges in June, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the capture of Shalit. At the time, Netanyahu announced that Palestinian prisoners’ rights would be curbed until Shalit was released.
The release of Shalit is certainly an important milestone. It proves that Israel may indeed deign to negotiate with Hamas. But until the agreement is actually executed, analysts advise caution. A similar breakthrough in 2009 was scuppered at the last minute. DM
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