Analysis: Prisoner exchange will make it tougher to cut a deal with Hamas

Hamas is clearly envious of Hizbullah, which managed to score points on Arab streets through the release of Kuntar.

Haniyeh says hi 248 88 AP (photo credit: AP [file])
Haniyeh says hi 248 88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hopes that Hamas might soften its position on kidnapped IDF St.-Sg. Gilad Schalit faded Wednesday with the completion of the prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah. Representatives of Hamas said the prisoner exchange "showed that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was the only way to secure the release of Arab prisoners." The abduction of Israeli soldiers is a strategic option for the release of prisoners, Hamas and other Palestinian factions said in statements. Even Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah said that the deal between Israel and Hizbullah "sent the message that negotiations alone would never secure the release of prisoners from Israeli jails." This means that one should expect more attempts by Palestinians to kidnap IDF soldiers or civilians. Hamas leaders were quick to emphasize Wednesday that their demands regarding the release of Schalit remained unchanged, adding that, if anything, the deal with Hizbullah showed that patience pays. "We're not in a rush," a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip replied when asked about the talks over the release of Schalit. "Our demands have been the same since we presented them to the Egyptians about eight months ago. Experience has taught us that the Israelis always retreat at the last minute." In fact, the deal with Hizbullah is likely to result in Hamas hardening its position. Hamas is demanding 1,000 prisoners in return for Schalit, and the movement's leaders are convinced that Israel will eventually succumb. The indirect talks over the release of Schalit are stuck mainly because of Israel's refusal to free dozens of Palestinian prisoners serving life terms for killing Israelis. However, the release of Samir Kuntar, who was responsible for the killing of four people, is seen by Hamas as a significant change in Israeli policy. As far as Hamas is concerned, the taboo has finally been broken. In the eyes of Hamas and many Arabs, Kuntar was not just another prisoner. He was a symbol, a "quality" prisoner. Or as a Fatah operative in Ramallah said: "The release of Kuntar is like the release of 1,000 prisoners." In the wake of Kuntar's release, Hamas sees no reason why it should display flexibility in the negotiations on a prisoner exchange agreement. Attempts by the Egyptians and other Arab mediators over the past two years to persuade Hamas to soften its stance have failed as the movement's leaders repeatedly stressed that there is no room for compromise. Now the mediators will find it even more difficult to gain any concessions from Hamas on Schalit. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded since the abduction of Schalit in June 2006. That's another reason why Hamas won't be able to lower the price. Hamas needs to come to the Palestinian public with a "good" deal - one that justifies the high price paid for the kidnapping of Schalit. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Wednesday that the Israelis "know that they will have to pay a price. There is an Israeli soldier in captivity and there are thousands of [Palestinian] prisoners. We are interested in closing this chapter." Haniyeh's remarks, which came in response to the Israel-Hizbullah deal, were interpreted by some Palestinians as a hint that Hamas might raise the number of prisoners it's demanding in return for Schalit. Haniyeh did not talk about 1,000 prisoners, but "thousands." Hamas is clearly envious of Hizbullah, which managed to score points on the Lebanese and Arab streets through the release of Kuntar and other Lebanese prisoners. Hamas is well aware of the fact that when and if Israel finally accepts all its conditions, the movement's popularity among the Palestinian and Arab masses will also be boosted.