24 July, 2008
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”.