Palestinian Affairs: No end in sight

While a frenzy of media reports by Arab newspapers spurred speculation that a prisoner swap for Schalit is imminent, the reality may be just the opposite.

schalit rally 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
schalit rally 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
'Allah is on the side of those who are patient." This is what a Hamas representative in the Gaza Strip had to say this week in response to a barrage of reports in the Arab media about a "breakthrough" in negotiations to achieve a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. Indeed, since the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in the summer of 2006, Hamas's attitude toward the prisoner exchange issue has been based on the hadith (saying) of Muhammad that patience is from Allah and hastiness is from the devil. Hamas is in no rush to strike a deal because its leaders truly believe that time is on their side. Osama Mazini, the Hamas official in charge of the "Schalit portfolio," said this week that Israel had no choice but to accept all of his movement's demands if it wanted to see the soldier reunited with his family. "We have a lot of patience," explained Mushir al-Masri, one of Hamas's prominent spokesmen. "We can wait for another 20 years." Hamas's main problem is that it has climbed a very high tree since the kidnapping of Schalit. Attempts by the Egyptians, Turks and now the Germans to help Hamas climb down have thus far been unsuccessful. And the more time passes, the more difficult it will be for Hamas to make concessions. The kidnapping of Schalit has cost Hamas and the Palestinians a very heavy price. More than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands others wounded since Schalit was snatched from his tank. Dozens of Hamas officials have been imprisoned by Israel, and the Islamic movement's security and civilian infrastructure in the West Bank has almost been wiped out, in part thanks to the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority. Now Hamas needs to show the Palestinians that the heavy and "painful" price was not in vain, especially since some of the movement's critics have begun asking too many questions. "One day we will ask ourselves whether the whole Schalit affair was good or bad for the Palestinians," said a veteran Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip. "The Gaza Strip has been nearly destroyed and thousands of people have been killed and wounded by Israel since the soldier was captured." Hamas, he added, has put itself in a very difficult situation. "Now it needs to justify to the Palestinians the heavy price," he said. "That's why it needs a large number of quality prisoners." WHEN TALKING about "quality" prisoners, the Palestinians are referring to those inmates who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. And there's no shortage of such inmates in Israeli prisons. A number of them have even been sentenced to more than 50 life terms each for their role in the wave of suicide bombings and terror attacks that hit the country in the first years of the second intifada. In the eyes of Hamas and many Palestinians, each one of these "quality" prisoners is worth more than 10 "ordinary" inmates who are serving lighter sentences. This explains why Hamas has focused during the indirect negotiations with Israel on a list of 450 "heavyweight" prisoners, such as Abdullah Barghouti, who is serving 67 consecutive life terms. Barghouti had pleaded guilty to manufacturing bombs that murdered 66 people, and wounded more than 500. The release of such prisoners would enable Hamas to kill two birds with one stone. First, a good prisoner exchange deal would boost Hamas's popularity among Palestinians. Second, Hamas's success would undoubtedly undermine the standing of the Palestinian Authority. PA officials in the West Bank have been following, with a certain degree of concern, the reports about progress in the talks between Israel and Hamas. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters are particularly worried about the possibility that Israel would also release many Fatah inmates, including Marwan Barghouti, in the context of an agreement with Hamas. "It would be very embarrassing for Fatah if Hamas manages to secure the release of Marwan Barghouti, and other senior Fatah activists, in return for Schalit," noted a Fatah legislator in Ramallah. "That's why President Abbas has repeatedly urged the Israelis to release prisoners as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinian Authority, and not in response to Hamas's demands." Osama Hamdan, a senior political leader of Hamas, said this week that Abbas is so worried about the prospects of a prisoner exchange agreement that he actually foiled Egyptian mediation efforts at the last minute. Hamdan claimed that Israel and Hamas were on the verge of reaching a deal in the final days of the Ehud Olmert government when Abbas stepped in and ruined it. Hamdan and other Hamas representatives insist that Abbas appealed to the Egyptians and Americans to stop the deal on the grounds that it would undermine his authority and embarrass him. The charges, of course, have been denied by Abbas's spokesmen. On the other hand, the growing debate in Israel over the case of Schalit is another contributing factor to Hamas's willingness to wait even longer. After all, Hamas appears to be enjoying the fact that many international players have become involved in the Schalit affair. Besides the Egyptians, the Germans, Swiss and French also seem to be involved in some form of contact with Hamas. This is good news for Hamas, because one of its undeclared goals is also to achieve recognition in the international arena.