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