Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2011
Issue No. 1070
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In focus: Prisoners' swap a victory for Egypt

Five years after Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and after numerous attempts on the part of Israeli authorities to free him, whether by military means, intelligence operations or negotiations, Hamas and the Netanyahu government struck a deal, brokered by Egypt, to secure his release in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Among these prisoners, most of whom had been languishing in the occupation power's jails for many long years, 315 had been serving life sentences.

The prisoner swap was greeted with great joy and relief by Palestinians and Arabs who saw it as a victory for the resistance and for Palestinian will over Israeli intransigence and arrogance. Over the years since Shalit's capture, Hamas has shown a remarkable ability to outmanoeuvre and outwit the Israelis who did all in their power to pinpoint the location of his captivity. Not only did they draw on the expertise of US and European intelligence agencies, they unleashed a brutal war on Gaza during which they captured dozens of Hamas leaders and members of the Palestinian legislative assembly. All these efforts proved futile, for which reason the Palestinians and Hamas, in particular, deserve to be proud of their accomplishment.

However, an important question continued to lurk amidst the general jubilation. Why did Hamas compromise on its previous list of Palestinian prisoners, which included Fatah leader Marwan Al-Barghouti and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Secretary-General Ahmed Saadat? Its failure to live up to its promise not to release Shalit until all Palestinian leaders in Israeli jails are freed can only mean that its victory is a partial one.

In this regard, it is important to take into account another important consideration, namely that the Israelis and Palestinians were not negotiating on an equal footing. While the Israelis held over 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, Hamas held only one Israeli: Shalit. So, after the Israelis handed over 1,000 plus prisoners, they still retained a strong hand, whereas in handing over Shalit Hamas sacrificed the chip it could barter for any future deal; that is, unless it managed to capture another Israeli soldier.

But even in this respect, the Israelis are at an advantage. Israel is the occupying power and its army go on the rampage across the length and breadth of the occupied territories, so it would be relatively easy for it to replace the Palestinians it released with other captive leaders. The Palestinians do not have this luxury and even if they did succeed in taking another hostage they would have to pay an exorbitant price. The Israeli invasion of Gaza and the destruction and war crimes it perpetrated at the time are still fresh in the minds of the inhabitants of Gaza who, moreover, continue to suffer from the long and brutal blockade the Israelis have imposed on them.

The foregoing considerations bring us to our central question here: Why now? The answer to this resides in a variety of factors, foremost among which is the overwhelming sympathy that has accumulated in the UN General Assembly for the Palestinian Authority's (PA) bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood. The international community has voted in favour of the Palestinian proposal and recommended that it be put before the UN Security Council to receive the official stamp of approval. Although Obama has threatened to use the US veto against a resolution recognising a Palestinian state, the PA has already achieved a major moral victory with the General Assembly vote.

As though Israel has not isolated itself enough, Netanyahu has incurred international anger over his decision to build 1,700 housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, which is regarded as occupied territory under international law. The Shalit deal may have helped to alleviate the pressures on Israel and to soften the glare against Netanyahu. It may also have been intended to distract global attention away from the settlement construction project in East Jerusalem.

In addition, the prisoner swap may defuse the Palestinian protest movement that has spread through most Palestinian towns and cities. This movement was fuelled in part by the demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners and threatened to erupt into a third Intifada at a time when Israeli security agencies were contending with yet another problem: a widespread protest movement inside Israel against economic conditions and unemployment.

Hamas, for its part, would have been motivated to make a deal with Israel for several reasons. Above all, it is keen to persuade the international community that it has relinquished violence, in the hope of shedding the "terrorist" stamp with which it has been branded. The wider international acceptance it would gain could lead to its acceptance as an active party in any future negotiations over a peaceful settlement with the Zionist enemy and, perhaps, contribute to the lifting of the blockade on Gaza. It should be borne in mind, here, that one factor obstructing the Egyptian initiative seeking to promote Palestinian national reconciliation was that the US, EU and the Zionist occupier opposed any inter- Palestinian agreement that would include Hamas. By agreeing to the prisoner swap, Hamas was trying to demonstrate its ability to be "pragmatic" and, hence, a party that could be negotiated with in future peace talks.

Another factor that would have propelled Hamas towards a deal at this juncture is the collapse of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, which had been a source of support. On top of this, Syria is currently engulfed in a protest movement in which the Muslim Brotherhood is playing a central role. This places Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, in an awkward position because it has long used Damascus as a main political base with the blessing of the Syrian regime.

Undoubtedly, Hamas hoped to compensate for these setbacks by reaffirming its commitment to defend Palestinian detainees and to resistance while simultaneously demonstrating its ability to change strategy and shift tactics.

Several other factors were also operable, but exactly how and to what extent remain open to debate. Perhaps the most important is the dramatic upheaval known as the Arab Spring, which will overturn all previous equations and entirely reorder the balances and modes of play in the region.

What is extremely important for Egypt now is to follow through on the success of its brokering efforts, to launch Egypt back to the forefront of the regional arena. Egypt's achievement as a mediator, through the aegis of its General Intelligence Agency, should not be underestimated, especially considering the many other parties that were variously working for or against Egypt's efforts, not infrequently for the sole purpose of trying to steal the show and take credit for the pact for themselves. What crowned Egypt's success in brokering the Hamas-Israeli prisoner swap was a parallel exchange in which alleged Israeli spy Ilan Grapel was traded for 24 Egyptians detained in Israeli prisons. Not only has this strengthened support for the Egyptian negotiator at home, it has bolstered Egypt's moral and strategic right to continue to play a central mediating role in future negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Another factor that has strengthened the Egyptian position in this regard with respect to other regional and international players that have been jockeying to play a mediating role is the official apology that Egypt received from Israel for the deaths of Egyptian soldiers who were killed by Israeli forces near the Egyptian-Israeli border. This apology has caused the Turks considerable embarrassment for they have yet to receive a similar apology for the Turkish citizens killed in the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara over a year and a half ago, in spite of repeated threats by Turkish officials and international reports and investigations condemning Israel for its actions.

That Egypt did receive such an apology is indicative of the shifting balances between Egypt and Israel and the fact that Egyptian anger at both the popular and official levels has lent Egypt much greater regional weight and stronger influence in the resolutions of disputes. Certainly, this is one of the major victories of Egypt's popular revolution that remains unique in every respect.

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