Rarely have so many Israelis celebrated an event with such solidarity and
national pride. So many of the hundreds of thank-you letters I have received
from people I have never met included expressions about their connectedness to
this country and to each other. The return of Gilad Schalit brought out the best
in most of us, and few people I know did not have tears in their eyes when we
saw him for the first time. We all felt proud when he saluted the prime minister
and the chief of staff. We cried with joy when we saw him speaking to his mother
Aviva on the phone for the first time in over five years. We are all concerned
about his recovery and reintegration into his family and into
But many people have asked me: what’s next? Does the agreement
with Hamas represent a new possibility for political dialogue and understanding
with this radical Islamic movement? As the Israeli who probably has more hours
of dialogue and exchange with Hamas officials than almost anyone else I can
honestly say: I don’t know.
In the moment of elation after it became
clear that we had reached an agreement, my counterpart in the negotiations for
the prisoner exchange said to me “inshallah[God willing], next we bring peace!”
My personal wishes are certainly with his expression of hope. But in the days
following it was quite clear from our daily phone calls that chances for
dialogue or negotiations between us on political issues are still far away.
Neither Hamas nor Israel is ready to enter into the kind of talks that could
result in a political agreement that would include prospects for peace. This
does not eliminate the possibility of talking to Hamas about a long-term
cease-fire, perhaps another version of what some members of the Israeli
government call long-term interim agreements, instead of a permanent-status
agreement for peace. Right now that is not in the cards.
Right now, Hamas
is interested in advancing two main goals: ending the economic and political
siege on Gaza and reconciling with Fatah. Both of these goals have their
negative and positive impacts for Israel and must be carefully considered and
weighed by Israeli decision makers.
ONLY TIME will tell whether or not
the opening of the Gaza economy was officially part of the deal to release
Schalit. In the early days of the official negotiations I was asked to inform
Hamas that once Schalit was no longer in Gaza Israel would allow major economic
development and infrastructure projects to be implemented there. Some in Israel
believed this could serve as an incentive to the Hamas leaders to advance the
deal. It was not.To the contrary: that proposal was essentially ignored. At no
point in those talks did my Hamas interlocutors express any real interest in
pursuing that discussion. My hunch - that economic issues would not excite Hamas
leaders to make compromises - proved to be correct.
is Gaza may not be a motivating idea for Hamas leaders, but it is in the
interests of Israel. Gaza, with nearly 60 percent unemployment, is not a happy
People with no work and no income are not prone to become
politically moderate. Before the economic siege on Gaza most working people in
Gaza, especially those fortunate enough to work in Israel, comprised what could
be called Gaza’s middle class. The farmers in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia who
exported their flowers and strawberries to Europe through Agrexco were very
pleased to work with Israelis and were among Gaza’s strongest peace advocates.
The 4,500 Gazans who worked in the Erez industrial zone for Israeli companies
were gainfully employed and for the most part had very good relations with their
Those days are long gone. For most of the past six
years some 90% of the factories in Gaza have been closed. This situation is not
normal and it does not serve the cause of supporting the redevelopment of a
moderate Gazan middle class.
It is clear to me that Hamas is undergoing
deep-rooted changes, although it is too early to predict where these will lead.
The continuing revolutions around the Arab world and the spirit of the Arab
Spring are having their impact on Hamas as well. As a sister movement of the
Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is now officially part of the opposition to the Assad
regime in Syria. Syrian attacks against Palestinian refugee camps were the blow
that made it quite apparent that Hamas had to begin to remove its headquarters
Over the past months they have been implementing a plan
which they call “soft exit,” aimed at leaving Damascus without making too much
noise. But where to go? The Iranians offered them a new home base in Teheran,
but Hamas rejected that offer as part of their desire to move away from the
extremists elements, particularly in the Shi’ite world. Hamas’s funding from
Iran has also come to a standstill. They were offered to relocate some of their
operations to Qatar and they are likely to set up some offices there, but Qatar
is far away from Palestine.
The most natural place to go is Cairo, and
that is in fact what is happening. Despite official denials by both Egypt and
Hamas, many of the groups operations that were located in Damascus are now
relocating to Cairo. Some have also moved to Gaza.
The Egyptian success
in negotiating the final deal for the prisoner exchange was t least partly due
to the new leverage that Egypt gained by its willingness to allow Hamas to move
to Cairo. Now Egypt, facing severe problems in Sinai, is intent on regulating
and managing the relations with Gaza. In the past Egypt feared having to take on
responsibility for the welfare of Gaza. Now it seems that if they don’t take on
more responsibility they may lose control of Sinai. Egypt is interested in
moving the tunnel economy of Gaza above ground and I would not be surprised if
in the near future we begin to see the decision to open a cargo terminal at the
Hamas is also undergoing the beginnings of internal
democratic processes. There are preparations underway for the elections of the
Shura council. This is the highest decision- making body of the Hamas
Until now the Shura council has been a secret body that was
formed and selected by Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Over the years, as
some of its highest-level members were killed by Israel, including its founder,
decisions were made to add new members, such as Ahmed Ja’abri – the strongman of
Hamas’s military wing.
Elections for the Shura council would be an
expression of the movement’s awareness of the need to be more transparent and
accountable to the people. It would also reflect a keen understanding of
movement’s loss of popularity prior to the prisoner release. There is definitely
competition among both groups and individuals for leadership positions in Hamas,
and it will be most interesting to see if more moderate people in the movement
can rise to positions of real leadership.
IN THIS context I would like to
remind everyone, especially Gazans and even more so the leaders of Hamas, that
the people of Gaza paid an extraordinary price for holding one Israeli soldier.
The release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners may be considered by some as a victory
for the Palestinian people, but what about the more than 2000 Gazans who paid
with their lives and the 1.7 million people who have suffered economic
destruction and despair because of the decision of their leaders to hold an
Israeli soldier in captivity for more than 5 years? It is time for Palestinians
to challenge the leaders who have brought that doom on their own
It is also time for the Palestinian people who demand that Israel
observe international law begin to question the Hamas policies that denied Gilad
Schalit even the most basic rights under international law as a prisoner of war.
Schalit was denied visits by the International Red Cross. He was denied any
contact with his family. For more than five years he did not see the light of
day. Islam might guarantee the rights of prisoners to receive health care, food
and shelter, but international law requires more than that.
questions being debated now by the government of Israel following the boost that
was given to Hamas from the prisoner exchange are what policies it should adopt
that will strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Some
advisors close to Prime Minister Netanyahu are calling for punishing Abbas
because of his drive to achieve statehood recognition through the United
Nations. The questions being asked are the wrong ones.
is what Israel should do to serve the interests, the needs and the values of
Israel. Israel wants to make peace with its neighbors. Israel is interested in
the establishment of a peaceful democratic Palestine next to Israel. I still
believe that Israel’s primary partner for making peace is the PLO led by Abbas.
Peace between Israel and Palestine, based on two states for two peoples, remains
the only formula for real peace. Gaza and the West Bank will make up the
territory of the future Palestinian state. Implementation in Gaza of a peace
treaty, after it is reached, will depend on whether or not the regime there is
partner to the agreement. That decision will have to be made by the Palestinian
people, especially those who live in Gaza.
In the meantime we need to
advance Israel’s interests by entering into genuine negotiations with President
Abbas. In parallel we need to normalize life in Gaza and reconnect its economy
with that of the West Bank.
This is not a reward to Hamas, it is an
expression of understanding that steps in that direction will lead to the
moderation of the people of Gaza and Palestine.The writer is the co-CEO
of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and a radio host on
All for Peace Radio.