Factors Behind Hamas Release of Israeli Soldier

Factors Behind Hamas Release of Israeli Soldier

Friday, 14 October, 2011

Israel and Hamas agreed a historic deal this week that will see Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier seized by militants in 2006, released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Arab Spring editor Daniella Peled looks at the implications for both sides and for the future of the peace process.

Why has it taken so long for this deal to come about?

From almost as soon as Gilad Shalit was captured, on June 25, 2006, it was clear that his release would involve some kind of prisoner exchange.

It is hard to think of a more emotive issue than ensuring the release of a captive soldier in Israel, where service in the Israel Defence Force is such a key part of civilian life. Previous prisoner exchanges have included hundreds of Arab prisoners for dead Israeli soldiers or even body parts. The format for this deal – around 1,000 Palestinians prisoners for one Israeli soldier – had been agreed as long ago as 2009.

Some of the main hurdles were specific names on the list presented by Hamas, including many high-profile and convicted militants, and the question of where they would go after their release – whether they would be released to the West Bank or Gaza, and who would be deported. Israel also did not want to include Israeli Arab prisoners in the swap.

Changes of Israeli government and policy have also hampered negotiations, and Hamas have not always appeared to show any flexibility over Shalit’s release, as they have been very aware that he has long been the strongest card they held.

Shalit has been detained for more than five years. Why is he being released now?

Fatah’s bold moves towards a unilateral declaration of independence at the United Nations last month certainly swung the focus towards them as the major force in Palestinian politics.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s actions on the world stage, even though largely symbolic, had conspired to make Hamas seen an increasingly irrelevant force.

Hamas now wants to position itself as the most powerful representative of the Palestinian people – and has come under pressure too, both domestically and internationally. Conditions in Gaza, despite the easing of the siege last year, are still poor, and Hamas’s reluctance to take sides in the uprising in Syria, where its external leadership is based, has been seen as treachery by the Assad regime and there have been rumours for several months that the militant group will soon have to find another centre for its operations.

At the same time, the post-Mubarak regime in Egypt has reportedly been able to put greater pressure on Hamas to make concessions in the deal.

Israel has also seen its relations with Egypt, a close partner under the leadership of Hosni Mubarak, deteriorate in recent months. With Egypt playing a crucial role in this deal, some commentators have said that Jerusalem saw it as important to seize the chance to broker something before ties were further weakened.

On the Israeli side, also, certain figures who opposed the deal – such as former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, who left in May – have been replaced by others more amenable.

Diskin’s successor, Yoram Cohen, said this week, “We can't guarantee that the released prisoners won't [stage] terror attacks, but this is the best deal we could ever get.”

It will not be hard for Israel to keep the released prisoners under surveillance, especially in the West Bank, where the Shin Bet and the Palestinian Authority’s security services are fairly strong and stable.

What major concessions have been made?

Israel reduced the numbers of prisoners it has demanded be expelled - about 200 will now be deported - and Hamas made concessions on the senior figures among those to be released.

Although from the Israeli perspective, the initial selection of prisoners includes many with “blood on their hands” and responsible for some of the most notorious terror attacks against Israel, most have served lengthy sentences and there are many high-profile figures that have not been included.

There had been much speculation that leaders such former West Bank Fatah chief Marwan Barghouti – seen by many as a potential future leader with the power to unite the various factions – as well as Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, would be freed. But they will remain in custody.

Six Israeli Arab prisoners will be released, and all the female detainees which Hamas asked for.

What are the implications for the parties involved?

After initial jubilation, criticisms have begun to emerge over the terms of the release, not least the fact that Hamas has agreed that more than 200 prisoners be deported - an emotive issue.

But when the release comes, there will be a series of victory parades and much public triumphalism in what will inevitably be a public relations boost for Hamas.

Fatah has rather been put in the shade by this dramatic turn of events. Its high-profile actions at the UN have failed to achieve anything as concrete as this.

It is also an achievement for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the deal, even though it involves freeing convicted killers - one that he badly needed. He has seen his position weakened by the mass protests over social justice in Israel all through the summer, and has been further isolated by plunging relations with former allies, including Egypt, Turkey and even the United States.

Is this likely to prompt a resumption of peace talks?

The deal seems to be a mark of progress but is unlikely to have any impact on bilateral talks at all. The same number of obstacles remain. It could be argued that the deal has strengthened two parties in the conflict – the hard-line Netanyahu and the militant Hamas – who have little interest or ability in bringing about any kind of meaningful resolution.

Netanyahu will still not talk to Hamas, and Hamas will not adopt a more pragmatic stance.

It could also be argued that the deal shows that more can be achieved in terms of tangible results by direct action and violent resistance than through the symbolic achievements of diplomacy. Certainly, the capture of Israeli soldiers remains a high priority for Palestinian militant groups.

The Arab Spring
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists