On the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas officials greeted some 280 freed prisoners on Tuesday, giving each a long embrace amid a cacophony of horns honking and masked gunmen struggling to keep order as friends and families crowded into the ceremony.
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Some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was on hand to welcome prisoners being released to the West Bank. Abbas made do with traditional kisses on both cheeks as each of the prisoners filed by. Earlier, the proceedings were spoiled by a last-minute change in the route they took home, leading to an exchange of stone-throwing and teargas between Palestinians and Israeli troops.
Publicly, both leaders were basking in the glow of a prisoner swap that will ultimately free more than 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. Unofficially, both know that the exchange was a victory for Hamas, the Islamic movement that was responsible for kidnapping Schalit and negotiating the terms of the trade.
But observers of the Palestinian scene say Hamas’s victory will likely prove ephemeral as the Palestinian public quickly forgets the achievement and the age-old debate remains unresolved among Palestinians – whether to achieve their state through negotiations, as Abbas advocates, or through armed struggle, as Hamas wants.
“Twenty days ago, Abbas gave a speech at the UN General Assembly and he was very popular. Nowadays, now one talks about that speech. No one talks about Palestine at the UN,” Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of politics at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, told The Media Line. “The same thing will happen to Hamas.
The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority ruling in the West Bank has
been leading a drive to have the United Nations recognize a Palestinian
state, a move its leaders say will enhance their standing and pressure
Israel into peace talks. Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip
four years ago, rejects Israel’s existence and insists Palestinians can
defeat it militarily.
While the prisoner swap doesn’t quite fit the description of armed
struggle – Hamas negotiated the terms through Egyptian and German
intermediaries – analysts and PA officials say that it does demonstrate
the value of persistence and the refusal to compromise. They say it
undermines in eyes of the Palestinian public the advantages of a
“This deal has definitely improved the public position of Hamas and the
perception of resistance," an unidentified official in the Abbas
government told the Reuters news agency on Monday. "The success of this
deal sends the wrong message to the public."
Abusada said Hamas may enjoy a second wave of public adulation when a
second group of 550 prisoners is released in two months, but the impact
of that will also fade away, short of a more comprehensive answer to
solving the Palestinians’ problems.
Although Hamas leaders have said the prisoner swap includes promises by
Israel to ease the blockade it imposed on Gaza when Hamas took over in
2007, the movement can only suggest to Palestinians patience as a
timetable to military victory. Hamas has stockpiled missiles and other
weaponry in anticipation of another conflict with Israel, but its last
fight with the Jewish state in the 2008-2009 Cast Lead Operation ended
badly for it.
More recently, Hamas has seen its popularity slip amid a failure
negotiate a national unity government with Fatah this year or to improve
living conditions in Gaza. Its early hopes that the Arab Spring would
improve its standing have been dashed. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak,
who was cool to the Islamic movement, was ousted from power, but Bashar
Assad, a key ally, is beset by popular rebellion at home.
In the short run for Hamas, the rescue not only brings it renewed
popularity but could serve as a recruiting tool for new members, Ido
Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian politics at Israel’s Haifa
University, told The Media Line.
“They’ve always thought that in the long term the armed resistance will
bring them more popularity particularly among the young. This is where
they are putting most of their efforts, to recruit the young generation
into movement,” he said. “They now can give out the message that we will
rescue anyone who falls into enemy hands and that we can bring you
great achievements that Abbas can’t through negotiations.”
What Hamas may not be able to do, however, is rebuild its organization
with the released prisoners heading back to the Fatah-ruled West Bank,
where Israeli and PA security forces have decimated the movement,
analysts said. Their identities are already known and their movements
are likely to be restricted.
Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency and a
supporter of the swap, said the number of prisoners being released was
too small to change the balance of power between Israel and Hamas or
between Hamas and the Fatah.
“The risk we are taking is on a level and a security challenge we will
be able to deal with. There are 20,000 Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam fighters in
Gaza, and another 200 terrorists won't make the world crash down upon
us," Cohen told reporters last week, referring to the military wing of
Hamas has also diminished the PR impact of the swap by failing to free
some of the most high-profile Palestinians held by Israel and focusing
on its own members at the expense of Palestinians affiliated with Fatah
and other movements.
"This is not a deal," Fatah's Kadura Fares, who heads a Palestinian
prisoner activist group and is a close associate of jailed Palestinian
leader Marwan Barghouti. Fares told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz
, "This agreement does not come close to respecting the principles and criteria which Hamas itself promised."
Among the celebrity prisoners still behind bars in Israel are Ahmad
Sa'adat of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, jailed for
his role in assassinating Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001;
and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life
sentences and is regarded as many as a possible successor to Abbas as
Islamists also have their complaints about the prisoner list, said
Zelkovitz. Abbas Al-Sayed, who helped plan to 2002 bombing of the Park
Hotel in Netanya, was not released; nor were Abdullah Barghouti, a Hamas
official in Gaza responsible for dozens of murders; or Ibrahim Hamed,
the head of the movement’s military wing in the West Bank.