Hamas gains from prisoner swap likely to fade

Analysts say Islamic movement scores points from Schalit deal, but public will eventually forget issue, as has been the case with PA statehood bid.

October 19, 2011 09:55
Ismail Haniyeh

Ismail Haniyeh_311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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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.

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.

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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 negotiated solution.

“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.

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 Fatah chief.

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.

Click for full JPost coverage on Gilad Schalit

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