The timing of the prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas has triggered a wave of speculation in the Palestinian territories about the true motives of the Islamist movement.

While Hamas’s political enemies have gone as far as suggesting that the deal was part of a “conspiracy” between Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to undermine the Palestinian Authority, many Palestinians believe that the current developments in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Syria, were the main reason behind the movement’s decision to sign the prisoner agreement.

On the other hand, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s statehood bid at the UN in September is believed to have hastened Hamas’s decision to accept the deal with Israel. Even though he did not return home from New York with a state in his bag, Abbas, by all accounts, had benefited significantly from his move at the UN. Even Hamas leaders were forced to praise him for fulfilling his pledge to submit an application for membership of a Palestinian state in the UN despite immense pressure and threats from the US.

Abbas returned home empty-handed, but that did not prevent thousands of Palestinians from honoring him with a hero’s welcome in Ramallah – much to the dismay of the Hamas leadership. Abbas’s triumphant return to Ramallah coincided with the publication of public opinion polls that showed that his popularity had risen as a result of the UN step.

Until the last minute, many Palestinians were convinced, based on the experiences of the past, that Abbas would succumb to the US pressure and abandon his statehood application.

Abbas’s move at the UN, which has won the backing of about 130 countries, clearly embarrassed the Hamas leadership. Here was Abbas leading a successful diplomatic battle against Israel in the international arena while the leaders of Hamas were unable to offer any hope to the Palestinians.

Overnight, Abbas appeared to have succeeded in transforming his image from a pawn in the hands of the Americans and Israelis to a strong leader who is not afraid of saying no to the president of the US.

Besides, how could Hamas come out against a Palestinian leader who is defying the US and Israel and seeking world-wide support for and recognition of an independent Palestinian state? When a few Hamas leaders dared to speak out against the statehood bid on the grounds that Abbas did not have a mandate to seek a state “only” on the territories captured by Israel in 1967, the PA quickly responded by accusing Hamas of “colluding” with Israel and the US to foil Palestinian independence.

Hamas, Israel and the US have a common goal – to prevent the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state, Fatah spokesmen in the West Bank charged.

“There’s no doubt that Hamas was worried because of Abbas’s step at the UN,” said a member of the Fatah Central Committee in the West Bank.

“Hamas was especially worried because of the massive support among Palestinians for President Abbas.”

The Fatah official is convinced that the drama surrounding the statehood bid at the UN was one of the reasons why the Hamas leadership decided to strike a deal with Israel. “The timing is no coincidence,” the official remarked. “Hamas saw that the popularity of Abbas and Fatah was on the rise and decided to act before it’s too late. Hamas was obviously afraid of losing its control over the Gaza Strip.

They know that there are still many people in the Gaza Strip who support President Abbas and Fatah and who are fed up with the Hamas rule.”

But Hamas has also had other things to worry about in recent months. The ongoing popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has put the Damascus-based Hamas leadership in a difficult position.

According to numerous reports in the Arab media, relations between the Syrian authorities and the Hamas leaders have deteriorated in recent months because of the Islamist movement’s refusal to voice public support for Assad’s regime. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has begun studying the possibility of moving the Hamas headquarters from Syria to another Arab country, the reports claimed.

Although Hamas officials continue to deny the existence of a crisis in their relations with the Assad regime, a number of Hamas representatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said this week that the Syrian authorities have made it clear to Mashaal that they are unhappy with him and would not try to stop him if he chose to move to another country. The growing tensions between Hamas and Syria drove Mashaal and the Hamas leadership into the open arms of the ruling military council in Egypt.

Some Egyptian journalists have suggested in the past few weeks that Hamas may move its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo.

Sources close to Hamas said that Egypt’s ruling generals told Mashaal that if he wanted to improve his relations with Cairo, he would have to soften his position on a number of issues, first and foremost a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel and unity with Abbas’s Fatah faction. The sources noted that the ruling military council in Cairo had a great interest in reaching a deal between Hamas and Israel. Facing increased criticism from home and abroad for its failure to hand power over to a civilian government and violations of human rights, including the recent killing of Christian protesters on the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian generals now have good reason to show the US and the rest of the world that they are capable of delivering.

By embracing Hamas, the generals are also hoping to appease the Egyptian masses, especially the Muslim Brotherhood organization. In the eyes of many Egyptians, being affiliated with Hamas is more dignified than an alliance with the Westernbacked PA, which also continues to conduct security coordination with Israel.

Until recently, everyone knew that Syria was the only country that had influence and control over Hamas.

But the Egyptian-mediated prisoner deal shows that Hamas’s new “bosses” are Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his generals in the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces. Not surprisingly, the embattled Syrian regime is not all too happy with this shift in Hamas’s loyalty.

The prisoner deal is likely to deepen the crisis between Hamas and Damascus. Already this week there was talk in the Gaza Strip that the Syrian authorities were about to expel the Hamas leadership from the country.

The prisoner deal is one of the direct outcomes of the rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt. But, Hamas officials cautioned this week, “the agreement should not be seen as in indication that Hamas has changed its ideology or policy on the major issues.”

Palestinians say that those who think that Hamas would abandon its charter and accept the two-state solution because of the prisoner deal with Israel are living in an illusion. They point out that this was not the first time that Hamas had reached agreements with Israel, recalling several ceasefire accords between the two sides over the past few years.

Hamas’s willingness to strike deals with Israel has always been out of concern for the movement’s interests rather than a sign that the movement was headed toward moderation and pragmatism.

In fact, the prisoner swap has significantly bolstered Hamas’s standing among the Palestinians. Once again, Hamas has managed to send a message to the Palestinians that anyone who negotiates with Israel is a fool.

In this sense, Abbas emerges as the biggest loser from the deal. He was the last person to know about the deal. The only option he faces now is to try and form a unity government with Hamas.

In 2005 Hamas took credit for driving Israel out of the Gaza Strip.

The unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip sent the message to the Palestinians that suicide bombings and rockets are the only way to extract concessions from Israel. The disengagement was one of the reasons why, a few months later, Hamas won the parliamentary election in the Palestinian territories. Many Palestinians gave Hamas credit for forcing Israel to run away from the Gaza Strip – something which, they argued, could have never been achieved at the negotiating table.

Today Hamas is celebrating “victory” not only over Israel, but also against Abbas and those Palestinians who still believe in the peace process. The prisoner agreement has sent the message to Palestinians that Hamas’s “resistance methods,” and not peace talks, are the only way to force Israel to comply with Palestinian demands.

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