The reasons for Hamas’s ‘flexibility’ on Schalit swap

Analysis: Hamas needed a victory to show its constituents; and it needed to start worrying about where it can go from Syria.

Hamas PM Haniyeh celebrates prisoner deal in Gaza 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Hamas PM Haniyeh celebrates prisoner deal in Gaza 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The framework deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit that the cabinet approved on Tuesday evening – 1,000 for one – is pretty much the same one the German mediator put on the table two years ago. What changed are some of the key names on the list, and where the Palestinian prisoners will go after their release.
Until a couple of months ago, Hamas – according to Israeli officials – was insisting that all the names it put forward be freed.
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And among those names were a number Israel classified as arch-terrorists and terrorist symbols: Abdullah Barghouti, the senior Hamas engineer in Gaza responsible for dozens of murders; Ibrahim Hamed, the head of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank; Ahmad Sa’adat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine responsible for the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi; Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti; Jamal Abu al-Hija, a Hamas commander in Jenin; and others.
In addition, Hamas stood firm for months on its demand that all those released be allowed to return to their homes.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to meet these demands, and the deal never moved forward. But a few months ago, according to Israeli officials, Hamas began showing signs of flexibility on both issues – a flexibility met by flexibility by Netanyahu on two issues he had remained firm on until that point: that Arab Israelis would not be included in the deal, and that not all the women prisoners would be released.
Once Hamas took some – but by no means all – the names of “mega-terrorists” off the list, and once it agreed that some 203 prisoners from the West Bank would not be returning home, but instead be deported either to Gaza or abroad, Netanyahu agreed that six Israeli Arabs would be included in the deal, and that all 27 women would be released.
Among the women whom Israel originally said would not be released was Mona Jaud Awana, who lured 16-year-old Jerusalem high-school student Ofir Rahum to a meeting in Jerusalem whence he was then taken to the outskirts of Ramallah and murdered in January 2001.
One of the key questions that needs to be asked, and one discussed at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, is why after five years of holding Schalit was Hamas willing to bend at all.
The ministers were presented with three reasons for Hamas’s “flexibility.”
The first had to do with the organization’s situation in Syria, where it has its headquarters.
Hamas is an ally and very much identified with embattled President Bashar Assad, even though the group’s natural allies – both in Syria and elsewhere – are opposed to Assad. The weakened position of one of its main patrons meant two things for Hamas: It needed a victory to show its constituents; and it needed to start worrying about where it can go from Syria.
Finding another host country, according to assessments in Jerusalem, might be more complicated as long as it continued to hold Schalit.
Second, the cabinet was told that the changes in Egypt have had a huge impact on Hamas, bringing the revolutionary council and Hamas closer and giving the Egyptians a degree of leverage over the organization that president Hosni Mubarak never had.
Egypt, the cabinet was told, pressed Hamas to moderate its position, and Hamas – keen on having good ties with the new powers in Cairo – responded in a way it never had with the previous Egyptian regime.
And finally, the cabinet was told, Israel’s recent stiffening of the prison conditions for security prisoners – a move that triggered the recent hunger strike in Israeli prisons – is also believed to have had an impact, with the move placing pressure on Hamas from some of the prisoners and their families to strike a deal.
In June, Netanyahu announced that the “party is over” for Palestinian security prisoners, and that among the privileges to be done away with was their ability to study for advanced academic degrees from behind prison bars.
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