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Who profits from the release of Gilad Shalit?

2011 October 19
by Paul Vallely

Aside from the man and his family, who benefits from the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier set free by Hamas militants after five years imprisonment in Gaza? Certainly not Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, who wrong-footed both Israel and his Hamas rivals last month by boldly going to the UN security council to request full membership for the state of Palestine. That move saw the popularity of this weak president shoot up, with even some young Hamas leaders supporting his strategy. The negotiations between Israel and Hamas for the release of Mr Shalit in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners seems designed to claw back some ground and punish Mr Abbas for his UN initiative.

The leaders of Hamas, whose popularity has been sinking thanks to economic problems in the Gaza area it controls, can feel on the front foot again. Prisoners are held in very high esteem in Palestinian society and the release of 470 yesterday, with 550 more to come next month, will boost Hamas’s popularity. That will strengthen its hand in negotiations with Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction which must happen before elections next April.

But Hamas, like Israel, has compromised in the prisoner swap and that must be a sign of hope for peace in that land. For a start there was an implicit recognition of Israel in the act of negotiating. And Hamas settled for a lower number of freed prisoners than it wanted – and it accepted the Israeli condition that some of those freed would not be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank or Gaza. But Israel backed down on demands that a quarter of the prisoners would be deported to Turkey, Jordan, Qatar or Syria.

The gain for the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was that any weakening of the position of President Abbas reduces the prospects of a diplomatic deal which might require Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. And it garners support for him in the centre ground of Israeli politics where he has recently faced mass demonstrations over the state of the economy. After decades of preaching No Deal with Hamas he has also shown himself a pragmatist without sacrificing any fundamental ground on major issues.  The Israeli Right do not like what they see as a deal which rewards terror. But he has gained more support in the centre than he has lost on the Right, though that could change if freed inmates go on to commit new acts of terror.

That could happen. Many in Hamas were yesterday trumpeting the prisoner swap as huge victory which validated insistence that violence was the only effective way of resistance. That line was underscored by the support for the deal announced by Hezbollah, the Tehran-backed Lebanese guerrilla group. By contrast Mr Abbas’s non-violent diplomatic strategy had led Washington to freeze the transfer of $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, closing down the only power plant in the Gaza Strip.

Yet for all that the prisoner swap is evidence of movement where peace talks have been stalled for more than a year. Releasing prisoners was an important part of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The circumstances were admittedly different but the introduction of any fluidity into a sclerotic peace process is to be welcomed.

There are other shifts. Turkey had a role in the deal, which might indicate a return of Ankara to its old brokering role with Israel. The ground has shifted in Egypt, much to Israel’s alarm, with a new prominence of Islamists in the government there moving Cairo to a more central role than it played in the Mubarak years. So much so that Hamas is moving its headquarters there from strife-torn Damascus.

There is much to play for, which is why Fatah and Hamas held rival celebrations for the freed prisoners in both Ramallah and Gaza City yesterday. But movement is better than stalemate in this troubled region.


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