Analysis: PA officials welcome failure of Schalit talks

Freeing Hamas commanders in Schalit deal would have seriously hurt Abbas.

Abdullah Barghouti 248.88 ch2 (photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Abdullah Barghouti 248.88 ch2
(photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Some Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah have welcomed the failure of the prisoner exchange negotiations between Israel and Hamas as good news. The PA has many reasons to fear a deal between Israel and Hamas. First, the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners would have been seen as a major victory for Hamas. Recent public opinion polls have shown that Hamas's popularity is on the rise, in part thanks to Operation Cast Lead, which won the Islamic movement more sympathy among Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A prisoner exchange agreement would have further boosted Hamas's popularity, said a local newspaper editor. "I know several Palestinian officials here who were happy to hear that the talks between Israel and Hamas had collapsed," he said. "They were concerned that such a deal would embolden Hamas and undermine the credibility of Fatah." An official closely associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas said he was particularly concerned about the possibility Israel and Egypt would reopen the border crossings into Gaza in the context of a prisoner swap. The reopening of the crossings, especially the Rafah terminal, would only help Hamas tighten its grip on Gaza, the official pointed out. "We must not forget that Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip through a military coup [in 2007]. As such, Hamas is not a legitimate authority there," he said. Reports about secret contacts between some European diplomats and Hamas representatives over the past few weeks have also left officials in the Mukata "presidential" compound worried. Over the past two years, the PA has worked hard to isolate Hamas both in the local and international arenas. "We don't understand those voices that are coming from Europe and the US and which call for ending the boycott of Hamas," complained one official. "Are they trying to reward Hamas for the bloody coup that it staged in the Gaza Strip?" The PA was also worried the release of hundreds of Hamas operatives to their homes in the West Bank would have created a big headache for its security forces. The PA would have preferred to see many of the Hamas prisoners and their families "relocated" to other areas, such as the Gaza Strip. The top 10 Hamas prisoners whom Israel has refused to release in return for Gilad Schalit are regarded by the PA as the "commanders of Hamas's army staff" in the West Bank. Hassan Salameh, Ibrahim Hamed, Abdullah Barghouti, Abbas a-Sayed and Jamal Abu al-Hija were behind one of Hamas's deadliest military infrastructures in the West Bank. As experts in preparing various types of explosive devices, they are responsible for the killing of hundreds of people during the second intifada. These men are seen as heroes by many Palestinians, and this is how they would be received in their villages and towns if they were released from prison. Abbas's aides are not worried as much about the parties that would be held for the released Hamas prisoners as about the high probability the released men would rebuild their movement's military infrastructure in the West Bank and resume terror activities not only against Israel, but also against the PA. In the past year, the PA security forces, with the help of Israel and the US, have waged a massive campaign aimed at eliminating Hamas's political and military presence in the West Bank. The campaign has resulted in the arrest of more than 600 Hamas supporters and members, most of whom are being held in prison without trial. The crackdown, PA officials explained, was a preemptive measure designed to thwart any attempt by Hamas to extend its control to the West Bank. As far as these officials are concerned, the tough anti-Hamas measures are "working." Today, there's almost no such thing as a Hamas political or military leadership in the West Bank, since most of the movement's prominent figures are either in Israeli prisons or in Abbas's detention centers. The return of senior Hamas activists to the West Bank would certainly increase the movement's chances of staging another coup against the PA. Abbas's security forces wouldn't be able to arrest any of the released prisoners - even if they were seeking to undermine the PA - for fear of being accused of collaboration with Israel. Another PA official said the only way to "minimize the damage" resulting from a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas was by persuading Israel to release a large number of inmates as a gesture to Abbas and Fatah. He said it would be a "disaster" for Abbas if Israel released important prisoners such as Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti in the context of a deal with Hamas and not Fatah. If that happened, the official cautioned, "I won't be surprised if Barghouti and many Fatah members join Hamas."