Soldier's release lends general boost to both sides

Wed, Oct 19, 2011, 01:00

THE LOPSIDED, 1,027 to one, prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel suits both sides and has given a boost to Egypt, which brokered the deal.

Hamas demonstrated that, from its point of view, armed resistance and hard bargaining pay. Generally shunned by the world community, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, gained international and regional standing by conducting successful indirect negotiations with Israel and delivering alive and apparently well the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after holding him for five years.

The 1,027 prisoners, 477 of whom were released yesterday and transported in Red Cross buses, mostly to the Gaza Strip, had been convicted by Israeli courts and sentenced to prison terms. Both Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, are critical of an international community they maintain has done nothing to effect the release of hundreds of other Palestinian detainees, people held without trial by Israel in what is known as “administrative detention”.

Welcoming the return of convicted prisoners yesterday, Fatah supporters chanted: “We want a new Shalit.”

Following the successful negotiations that led to yesterday’s exchange, some Israelis now see Hamas as a potential peace partner, while world figures may prove ready to press the US and EU to remove Hamas from lists of terrorist organisations.

In the short run, Hamas may have halted its sliding approval rating and bested rival Fatah, which administers Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank. Fatah has seen its ratings rise since Mahmoud Abbas launched a bid for UN membership for Palestine.

Thanks to the swap, Hamas should find itself in a stronger position when it resumes reconciliation and reunification talks with Fatah, having broken ranks in 2007.

The compromises Hamas made to achieve the prisoner release are, however, controversial and have been criticised by human rights bodies, notably the acceptance of Israel’s demands to send 39 prisoners abroad and exile 160 East Jerusalemites and West Bankers to Gaza. Deportation and displacement are deemed “war crimes” in the Fourth Geneva convention, human rights activists argue.

A larger number of Hamas than Fatah prisoners have been freed, complain many Palestinians already angered over Hamas’s failure to free Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti and the Popular Front’s Ahmad Saadat.

Unless Israel lifts its siege and blockade of Gaza, Hamas is unlikely to enjoy long-term gains from the swap. Eighty per cent of Gazans are dependent on international food aid, unemployment is soaring, and frustration rising among Gazans who seek to rebuild their lost lives, infrastructure and economy.

Israel has deflected global attention from its construction of Jewish settlements on land that it is widely agreed should be included in a Palestinian state. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu can, for the moment, bask in the approval of 69 per cent of Israelis who favour the swap. He can also feel a sense of relief the Shalit family’s campaign to free Gilad has come to an end.

Respite could be brief. Families of Israelis killed and wounded in Palestinian attacks have protested at the exchange, while some analysts argue it encourages Palestinian fighters to try to capture other Israeli soldiers.

The plan to build a new settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem ensures Netanyahu is without a negotiating partner.

Abbas flatly refuses to talk until settlement expansion is halted and Israel agrees to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 ceasefire line. Abbas has focused on his bid for Palestinian UN membership with the aim of gaining recognition of a state within the 1967 line.

Egypt has benefited from the exchange, its first major coup since overthrowing Hosni Mubarak in February.

Many Egyptians and Arabs hope Cairo, free of Mubarak’s ties to the US and Israel, will remain independent and resume Arab leadership.