Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 April 2007
Issue No. 840
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Olmert's big dilemma

In any prisoner swap deal with Israel, the cards are stacked in favour of the Palestinians, writes Khaled Amayreh from Jerusalem

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A blind elderly Palestinian man sits on the ground after Israeli border policemen blocked roads to check IDs in the West Bank town of Hebron

After months of delays and equivocation, the Israeli government has finally agreed to receive a list of the names of Palestinian political and resistance prisoners Hamas is demanding released from Israeli jails in return for freeing an Israeli occupation soldier captured by resistance fighters near Gaza last year.

The list includes some 1,300-1,400 prisoners and detainees, including prominent political and resistance leaders affiliated with Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), among other Palestinian groups.

According to information posted on an Islamic website, though as yet unofficial, imprisoned Hamas leader Hassan Youssef, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP Secretary-General Ahmed Saadat will top the list of would-be freed prisoners.

The list also contains veteran Hamas leaders Abdullah Barghouti, Yehia Senwar, Hassan Salameh, Abdul-Khaleq Al-Natshe, Nael Barghouti as well Bassam Al-Saadi, a top Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, and Fouad Al-Shubaki, a top Fatah security official.

Many of the prisoners whose names appeared on the list have been languishing in Israeli jails for over 20 years, some with virtually no chance of being freed while alive.

Israeli spokespersons, either speaking openly or on condition of anonymity, indicated that the Olmert government is in the process of creating "new criteria" for pardoning "terrorists". Israeli media this week quoted unnamed officials as saying that Israel will agree to release Palestinians "with Jewish blood on their hands", a clear allusion to Palestinian resistance fighters found guilty of killing Israeli occupation soldiers, settlers or civilians.

The fact that Israel has agreed to receive the list of Palestinian prisoners doesn't mean that a prisoner swap deal is imminent, however. Israel, known for its tough and exhaustive negotiating tactics, is likely to reject outright Palestinian demands for releasing some of the big names included on the list. The Israeli justice system in the occupied territories views all Palestinians involved in killing or injuring Israelis -- even in self-defence or in legal operations again occupation soldiers -- as terrorists.

According to some analysts, the release of a significant number of Palestinian prisoners, even in exchange for an Israeli soldier, will further deteriorate Olmert's political standing, especially among his right-wing political and ideological allies as well as the bulk of the right-leaning Israeli public. Indeed, the government must be apprehensive about the psychological impact of freeing hundreds of Palestinian leaders as it would constitute a moral boost to the Palestinians, languishing still under the strictures of a crippling siege imposed by Israel and Western countries following Hamas's success in last year's Palestinian legislative elections.

Some Israeli pundits have suggested that granting freedom to a large number of imprisoned nationalist and Islamic leaders could seal the fate of the Kadima government, whose popularity has been dwindling steadily anyway. Nonetheless, Olmert is facing unrelenting pressure from segments of Israeli society, especially the families and relatives of soldiers imprisoned by Hamas and Hizbullah, to be more flexible in order to bring their sons and loved ones back home.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Olmert is likely to attempt to circumvent his dilemma by acting as a tough negotiator in the hope of extracting a more "palatable" deal from Hamas. This is unlikely to succeed, however, since Hamas, too, can't be seen as compromising when it is answerable to thousands of Palestinian families who are impatient to see their sons and loved ones come home, many of whom have spent the prime of their lives in Israeli jails and detention camps.

Israel has been desperately trying to pin down the whereabouts of its captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. The Israeli army waged several brutal incursions throughout the Gaza Strip during which hundreds of Palestinians, mostly civilian, were killed and maimed. The savagery of the assaults failed to free Shalit.

Meanwhile, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, instructed hundreds of its informers throughout the Gaza Strip to "leave no stone unturned" in order to ascertain the whereabouts of Shalit and the identity of his captors. This, too, failed to achieve any result. Eventually, the Shin Bet recommended against "liberating Shalit by force", arguing that the chances of retrieving him alive were less than one per cent.

Furthermore, the abduction of nearly 100 Hamas cabinet ministers, officials and lawmakers, including such high-ranking leaders as parliament speaker Abdul-Aziz Duweik, in order to pressure Hamas to free Shalit, also failed to yield results, leaving the Israeli government with very few choices left.

In this context, it is not unlikely that the Olmert government, reputed for its duplicity, will resort to publicly agreeing to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners while planning in secret to re- arrest many of them after Shalit's release on fresh concocted charges. Israeli military courts, before which no Palestinian can be proven innocent, could pass hefty suspended prison sentences on prominent prisoners in order to facilitate their re-arrest.

Such behaviour, however, would carry the price of significantly worsening Israel's relations with Egypt, the main intermediary in the Shalit affair. On the other hand, a successful prisoner swap with Israel would likely bolster the stature of the Palestinian national unity government, especially if the swap included capable leaders such as Marwan Barghouti, a strong advocate of national harmony and understanding with Hamas.

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