A day after Hamas and Fatah agreed to establish a national unity government, a military court decided Tuesday to release 18 Hamas lawmakers pending an appeal, in what a senior Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah claimed was part of a deal that would ultimately lead to the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here Military Judge Maj. Ronen Atzmon decided to release the Hamas men on NIS 25,000 bail each. The 18 will still stand trial for illegal membership in the Hamas terror organization. According to the ruling, however, they could spend the duration of the trial at home. Prosecutors appealed the ruling and the 18 are to remain in custody until the court reaches a final decision on Thursday.
Analysis: Simply a coincidence?
"It's no coincidence that the Hamas officials are being released a day after the agreement to form a national unity government," the PA official told The Jerusalem Post.
On Monday, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced in Gaza City that they had reached an agreement to form a unity government on the basis of a political program that implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist.
"President Abbas received assurances from Israel, the US and other European countries that the Hamas leaders would be released shortly after the agreement," the official said. "These assurances convinced Hamas to accept the unity government idea."
According to the official, the next phase of the deal calls for the release of Shalit. Several days later, Israel will release about 800 Palestinian prisoners, including minors and women, as a "goodwill gesture" marking the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and not as part of a prisoner swap.
"This deal was reached with the help of some European and Arab friends," the official added, though he refused to elaborate. "The ball is now in Israel's court and, if all goes according to the plan, we could witness dramatic developments in the coming days."
Abbas flew to Amman on Tuesday to brief Jordanian officials about the deal, the official said, noting that some Jordanian prisoners would also be released as part of the deal.
MK Taleb A-Sanaa (United Arab List), who led the defense for the Hamas lawmakers, told the Post that the court's decision was connected to the negotiations over the release of Shalit.
"The decision was a legal one, but there is no doubt that it was derived from the political situation," A-Sanaa said. "The decision reflects on future political dealings between Israel and the PA regarding the establishment of a PA unity government which will lead to better conditions for the release of Shalit."
Among the 18 lawmakers whom the court decided to release Tuesday were PA Parliament Speaker Dr. Aziz Dweck, Minister of Religion Na'af Rajoub, Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Khaled Abu-Arfa, as well as the orange-bearded Hamas MP Muhammad Abu-Tir.
The IDF arrested more than two dozen Hamas lawmakers in June after terrorists in Gaza linked to the group attacked a military post near Kerem Shalom and abducted Shalit.
In his decision, the military judge questioned the timing of the arrests, noting that the men were permitted to run for office and serve in the Palestinian government for months before their detentions. He said that Israel knew that the suspects, who were indicted last week for membership in a terror group, were associated with the Hamas before the elections but turned a blind eye and allowed them to be elected.
Seven Hamas politicians attended Tuesday's court session, with most dressed in brown prison garb and their legs shackled. "We do not recognize the authority of this court. We are elected lawmakers. We have been kidnapped," shouted one of the lawmakers, Mahmoud al-Ramahi.
An IDF officer involved in the case said that there was a good chance the appeal would be accepted during Thursday's hearing and that the Hamas men would remain in custody.
"This was a great achievement for the legal system," A-Sanaa said. "The military court declared that it is not willing to be a stamp for the government and that political issues need to be dealt with politically and not in the court of law."