On the fateful October day on which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from
Hamas captivity in exchange for the eventual release of over 1,000 Palestinian
prisoners, green became the dominant color in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank,
and even parts of East Jerusalem.
Green Hamas flags flew from rooftops in
the Jabal Mukabir, Sur Baher, Silwan and Isawwiya neighborhoods of the capital,
where hundreds celebrated the release of six East Jerusalem residents as part of
the deal. In the West Bank, Palestinians who have kept their Hamas sympathies in
the closet in recent years also trotted them out with pride, and Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted prisoners, many of whom were wearing
green Hamas headbands, most of them adorned with the Islamic statement of faith
and sometimes with the words “Qassam Brigades” as well.
And in Gaza, tens
of thousands gathered for a huge rally in western Gaza City to honor the
released prisoners alongside senior Hamas leaders – including Ismail Haniyeh,
Mahmoud a-Zahar, and even Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari, who usually
stays out of the limelight. But amid this Hamas-fest, there were also some
unexpected flashes of yellow – the color of the Fatah flag.
Fatah flags were carried by women who participated in the mass rally – an
interesting development. Until recently, Hamas forbade Gazans from flying the
Fatah flag anywhere and from carrying any other Fatah-related symbols, such as
photos of Yasser Arafat.
All of which begs the question: What is the
significance of the Shalit deal for intra-Palestinian relations? And what will
the repercussions be in terms of the tense and troubled dynamic between the two
main Palestinian players – Fatah and Hamas – vis-à-vis Israel? It seems that
although the Israeli public is convinced that the deal has been an enormous
gift, which will bolster the power of Islamic Hamas at the expense of their
rivals in the secular Fatah movement, experts on Palestinian affairs draw a far
more complex picture of relations between the two and their approach to dealing
with Israel.The V-sign that was held up by victorious Palestinians being
released from Israeli jails and the usual bragging Hamas rhetoric should be
taken with a grain of salt, says Ido Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian affairs
at the University of Haifa. He explains to The Jerusalem Report that Hamas only
sanctioned this deal due to its weakness and desperation, being unable to lift
Israel’s siege on Gaza or meet the demands of a frustrated
“There are at least two important aspects to their
achievement,” Zelkovitz notes.
“Naturally Hamas will stress that this is
an achievement of armed struggle, since Abu Mazen [Abbas] wasn’t able to close
the prisoners release deal by peaceful means. Also, the prisoners issue is one
of the most important for Palestinians, since almost every family has or had
someone in Israeli prisons, and this deal included not only Hamas prisoners, but
also activists of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and PFLP [the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine].”
This shows, he says, that Hamas cares for all
and not just for its own. At the same time, it also demonstrates that Hamas has
been trying to prove that it has achieved something significant since winning
parliamentary elections in January 2006 and wresting control of Gaza in June
“It effectively proves that Hamas provides a wide umbrella to all
the prisoners and their problems. But let’s not forget that it’s the relative
weakness of Hamas, whose popularity is in decline and who now has a major
problem in the Arab arena – since its closest allies in Syria are fighting for
their lives – that forced them to reach this deal,” Zelkovitz posits. “In the
short-term they are seen as victors. But what will happen next? The human memory
is ungrateful, as we know. People tend to forget about this kind of event in the
Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar
University in Gaza, says that for the next two months – until the second set of
the prisoners are released – Hamas will indulge itself with
However, if nothing changes on the ground, this
“achievement” will go in vain.
“Did Hamas grow stronger? We haven’t
measured Hamas’s popularity following the prisoner exchange, so we don’t know
for a fact that Hamas is now much stronger than before,” Abusada tells The
“We know that for the last four or five years, its popularity has
declined. It has been widely blamed by the population for the siege that
devastated our lives and the economy. Also, Hamas wasn’t able to organize
significant numbers of its supporters to participate in mass rallies like
before, and this is also an indication as to what is happening on the
Hamas can only ride the air of celebration for so long, Abusada
warns. It could continue until mid-December, when the next and final batch of
prisoners is released, but then what? Little else will have changed, he
“There is no freedom of movement and the siege is still here – so
where is the big achievement? Only if the siege is fully lifted can one expect a
change in public opinion vis-à-vis Hamas; otherwise it will be a short-lived
popularity,” Abusada concludes.
He adds, however, that Palestinians are
impressed with Hamas in at least one respect – that it was able to hold Schalit
captive for as long as it did, confounding Israeli hopes and expectations that
with proper information, a bold rescue mission could be executed.
people respect Hamas since they were able to hide Schalit for five years in such
secrecy that even the Israelis didn’t know exactly where he was. Of course,
everyone knows that Israel is a strong country and that it didn’t get any weaker
due to this deal, but there is a certain sentiment of respect towards Hamas
also,” he says.
In Bethlehem, where mo re Fatah flags and wall graffiti
can be seen nowadays than in any other city in the West Bank, Dr. Nabil Kukali,
the founder and director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, says that
although the prisoner issue is indeed high on the agenda of the average
Palestinian, the most important issue is peace and coexistence with
“In all of our latest polls, the majority of the Palestinians
consistently say that they are interested in getting back to negotiations and to
move forward for a peace deal, not a prisoner exchange deal,” Kukali tells The
But given the complex Palestinian reality of internal conflict
and division, is it possible that Hamas will be ready to give up its militant
ideology for the sake of peace negotiations between Israel and the PA? Gershon
Baskin, the founder of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and
Information, who has established an extraordinary relationship with Hamas
leaders and, in fact, opened a direct track between Hamas and Israeli
negotiators over the summer, believes that the core ideology of the Islamist
movement has not changed.
“I don’t think Hamas is ready to sit at the
negotiating table with Israel and discuss borders,” Baskin tells The
“However, it is ready for a prolonged cease-fire with Israel.
There are some moderate groups inside the movement who believe that this tactic
will serve their cause much better. After all, Gaza paid a heavy price for
Schalit’s kidnapping and ultimately for this deal. A few thousand people were
killed and the siege is not yet over. So the victory has been very expensive and
Hamas is conscious that it is accountable to the people,” says Baskin.
Hamas might not be the winner in the long-term, but it’s obvious that it
certainly is savoring its 15 minutes of fame, while Abbas is desperately trying
to put on display again his own achievements at the United Nations. On October
18, during Abbas’s photo-op with the prisoners, whose release he had not managed
to secure, the feeling of strain and tension in the room was
But as Abbas has put it himself, life wasn’t going to stop on
September 23 – the day that he addressed the General Assembly – and nor would it
come to a halt on October 18, the day of the Schalit exchange.
the rais – Arabic for president – is determined to move along with his UN gambit
for statehood, which unlike the prisoner deal is a long-term process whose
success cannot be instantly measured.
Zelkovitz, the Haifa political
scientist, believes that Abbas still enjoys a great deal of support and
influence on the Palestinian street. He warns people against hurrying to write
Abbas’s political epitaph.
“He is still very powerful. In fact, he is the
only Middle Eastern leader who didn’t witness any angry rallies calling for his
toppling. His popularity has only grown. But at some point he will also have to
present his people with some results in terms of political progress as well as
the release of prisoners, since this issue is so high now on the agenda,”
Zelkovitz says. He argues that if, during the next two years, Abbas does not
succeed in accomplishing some kind of achievement, it will further complicate
the situation on the ground.
“If Israel loses Abbas, it will find itself
in a circle of violence once again and it won’t find anybody accountable,” he
The problem is also that Abbas has not progressed on the
Palestinian reconciliation track. “There are major difficulties and deep rifts,
and I don’t believe that the parties nowadays can simply negotiate and put an
end to this rift.
I think we’ve entered the era of conflict management,
not conflict resolution,” explains Abusada.
Baskin is similarly convinced
that the time is not ripe for reconciliation, since Abbas is not ready to move
in this direction.
The Palestinian political scene remains a tinderbox.
It is boiling with conflicts, ambitions and resentments, while both Fatah and
Hamas try to gain extra credit by releasing prisoners or by undertaking bold
political moves at the UN . Reconciliation is not a part of Palestinian reality
for now, although Khaled Mashaal, the head of the Hamas Politburo had recently
suggested holding another meeting with “Brother Abu Mazen in Cairo.”
should Israel act inside this minefield of conflicting interests and security
threats? Most experts interviewed by The Report agree that Israel should avoid
getting in the middle of the internal Palestinian struggle, which will leave it
vulnerable to being accused of meddling and trying to control the Palestinians’
future, the very antithesis of self-determination. Efraim Halevy, the former
head of the Mossad and the head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at
Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says that the more Israel tries to decide for the
Palestinians who should govern them, the more it will backfire.
believe that Israel should talk to the Palestinian leaders, especially if they
become united. But if they won’t come as one, then Israel will have to talk to
those who represent part of the Palestinians,” he tells The Report. “It’s
important to remember that Israel now no longer conditions negotiations with Abu
Mazen [Abbas] on the annulment of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and
Hamas. So I believe that we should use this moment to reassess our options and
possibilities, to see whether things have changed on the ground or
“We’ve heard a few statements by Hamas leaders lately, and one of
the voices belongs to Mahmoud a-Zahar, who said that he would be happier if the
release of the prisoners would be a part of an agreement, not a deal. What does
it mean exactly? Israel should at least explore these possibilities, and not
reject them all at once,” says Halevy.
Baskin believes that a lot of
changes are taking place in both the West Bank and Gaza, and it would be wise to
explore and to use these opportunities. “Hamas is now looking for favors from
Its leadership is attempting to relocate from Damascus to Cairo.
It could mean that Hamas is getting closer to Egypt and further away from Iran.
However, I don’t hold high hopes for the Quartet efforts to bring the
Palestinians and the Israelis back to negotiations at this point.”
observers argue that given the internal Palestinian stalemate, along with other
concerns such as the Arab Spring, US President Barack Obama’s preoccupation with
domestic re-election politics and the international community’s focus on global
economic problems, few players have the time and wherewithal to make an impact
on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that case, Israel is the only actor who
is capable of moving things on the ground.
This is a window of
opportunity that Israel should seize before it closes, argues Shaul
author of “Palestinian Hamas” and professor of political science at Tel
University. He believes that if Israel does not prove itself to be
and bold at this significant moment, it will lose its leverage over
regional actors and will not be able to shape the course of events in
“Hamas is a part of the Palestinian narrative,
and the Schalit deal emphasized this fact. Israel can no longer
exclusively with one party or the other. It should have contacts with
parties, and go at times with Hamas, and at times with Fatah,” he
asserts to The
The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he adds, has become more
of a regional affair than it has been in many years, with multiple
“Hamas is getting closer to Egypt. At the same
time Jordan is watching the scene and is allowing Hamas to get closer as
“Every country wants to have a say on the Palestinian issue.
If Israel does not adopt some kind of initiative, it will find itself
unwanted directions by other players and will not be able to shape the
geopolitical space between the sea and the river,” Mishal concludes.