Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 July 2008
Issue No. 907
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Shalit saga continues

With Hizbullah scoring a victory in its prisoner exchange deal with Israel, pressure is building on Hamas to do even better, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank

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A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY: A combo of three handout still video images made available by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem showing an Israeli soldier standing near an arrested handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian. The Israeli soldier was caught on film shooting the Palestinian in the leg

The recent "spectacular" prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hizbullah, which plunged Israel into a state national confusion while feelings of triumph spread in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, is already impacting on efforts to resolve the Shalit affair.

Hamas, like all other Palestinian factions, welcomed wholeheartedly the prisoner swap, arguing that it proved that Israel would be willing to release prisoners "who have blood on their hands" in return for the release of Israeli prisoners, dead or living.

"If they are willing release 'prisoners with blood on their hands' for dead Israelis, then they should be even more willing to release similar prisoners in exchange for Shalit, who is alive and well," said Mushir Al-Masri, a Hamas lawmaker.

Al-Masri was alluding to the release by Israel last week of Lebanese prisoner Samir Al-Kantar who killed three Israelis during a guerrilla operation nearly three decades ago.

Until recently, Israeli leaders routinely invoked the mantra that Arab prisoners who killed Israelis, even soldiers and paramilitary settlers, won't be released from Israeli jails under any circumstances.

The release, however, of Al-Kantar seems to have annulled that mantra. (Jews who murder innocent Palestinians knowingly and deliberately don't serve lengthy prison sentences and are usually pardoned by presidential decrees).

There are more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails and detention camps, many of them political activists, politicians, lawmakers and cabinet ministers held indefinitely without charge or trial.

There are also hundreds of other prisoners, who are serving life imprisonment sentences for killing Israeli soldiers and settlers in the course of resisting, according to their legal right under international law, the Israeli military occupation.

For those, the only reasonable hope of freedom is a "successful" prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas, a Sunni resistance movement, is under tremendous public pressure to emulate Shia Hizbullah in terms of resilience, patience and determination to get as many Palestinian prisoners as possible released from Israeli jails in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured two years ago.

This week, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Gaza-based government, sought to assure the Palestinian people -- especially the families and relatives of prisoners -- that Hamas wouldn't compromise on its basic demands, namely that Israel would have to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including 450 imprisoned for life.

Hamas leaders made similar statements at home and in the Diaspora, all promising "an honorable swap deal" with Israel.

Nonetheless, Hamas recognises the fundamental differences between the Lebanese and Palestinian situations. After all, Israel occupies the Palestinian territories and can and does arrest as many Palestinians as it pleases. Indeed, not a day passes without Israeli occupation troops raiding Palestinian towns and villages to arrest suspected activists and public figures.

This week, the Israeli army raided the city of Nablus for the fourth time in less than four weeks. The invading troops arrested several civic leaders and politicians including Mona Mansur, an Islamic lawmaker.

Mansur's husband, Jamal Mansur, a politician who had no connections to violent resistance against Israel, was brutally murdered by an Israeli death squad while sitting in his office in the centre of the city a few years ago.

Moreover, Hamas knows that Israel can always renege on any prisoner swap agreement by re-arresting some or all of the prisoners the Israeli government might be obliged to release to get Hamas to free Shalit.

Hence, Hamas is aware of the limitations on its ability to emulate Hizbullah. This is why Hamas is likely to insist on third party -- probably Egyptian -- guarantees against foul play by Israel.

For its part, and despite its advantage vis-à-vis the Palestinians, both in terms of the occupation itself and the vast number of Palestinian prisoners it holds, Israel is also facing a dilemma in trying to get Shalit freed from Palestinian captivity.

Israel exhausted all intelligence efforts to discern the whereabouts of Shalit in the hope of liberating him, possibly in a commando operation. However, nearly all Israeli military and intelligence officials have reached the conclusion that even if Shalit's whereabouts were discovered, any rescue operation would almost certainly end up in him being killed.

Moreover, and despite the certainty of Shalit being alive (unlike the two soldiers release by Hizbullah), Israel knows that the precedent of releasing Al-Kantar in exchange for "two black coffins" weakens the Israeli negotiating position vis-à-vis Hamas.

Added to that is growing public pressure on the weak government of Ehud Olmert to get Shalit released as soon as possible, irrespective of the price. Proponents argue that Israel should be willing to pay a greater price for the release of an Israeli soldier who is alive than the price already paid for the remains of two soldiers captured by Hizbullah.

Further, the Israeli government and security establishment, and particularly the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, is worried that the release of so many Palestinian leaders would significantly strengthen Hamas and weaken US-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet devoted its weekly session to discuss the best approach to resume indirect negotiations with Hamas over Shalit. Following extended discussions, the cabinet decided to dispatch Ofer Dekel, who is in charge of the Shalit file, to Cairo for additional talks with Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted ministers who took part in the session as calling for "greater flexibility in negotiations with Hamas" in order to free Shalit. The paper also quoted "security and political sources" as saying that "the restrictions on the prisoner criteria must be relaxed in order to achieve progress on the talks."

Meanwhile, former US president Jimmy Carter is reported to be trying to reach a breakthrough in a possible prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel. Carter reportedly urged Israel to release dozens of Hamas politicians and lawmakers abducted by the Israeli army two years ago in order to bully Hamas to release Shalit.

Last week, Robert Pastor, a senior advisor to the former US president, visited the region and met with Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian officials in an effort to expedite a "balanced deal" between the parties.

Under his initiative, Israel would release several dozen Palestinian political hostages, including Hamas lawmakers and former cabinet ministers. In return, Shalit would be brought to Egypt, where his family would be able to visit him. Afterwards, negotiations for the release of more Palestinian prisoners would continue.

A high-ranking Hamas official in Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly that the movement would never accept such a deal, which he termed a "clear Israeli trap".

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