Hamas has jumped back into the Middle East spotlight with a prisoner swap deal with Israel that will score points over President Mahmoud Abbas and steal some of the thunder he generated by pushing for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
Israel’s government approved the deal early Wednesday following a three-hour debate, according to The Associated Press.
But the deal hailed by the Islamist group which governs Gaza as a national victory was dimmed by Israel’s refusal to free some prominent prisoners from rival factions, including Marwan Barghouti – a leading figure in Abbas’ Fatah movement – or Ahmed Saadat – the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – according to Al Arabiya sources.
Hamas had repeatedly pledged to secure Barghouti’s release in any deal to set free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006. Israel is now set to free more than 1,000 Palestinians for Shalit in the deal announced on Tuesday.
“They would have given up on an important person in Barghouti. Someone important to the national movement,” said Hany al-Masri, a political commentator based in Ramallah in the West Bank. “It’s still a victory, but not such a great one.”
Barghouti and Saadat
The exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, announcing the deal from his Damascus headquarters, said the prisoners included more than 300 serving life terms in Israeli jails. They were drawn from members of all the Palestinian factions.
But he did not name any of them, fuelling early speculation that Barghouti and Saadat had been left out of the deal, according to Reuters.
Saadat was convicted of planning the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001. Barghouti was the top local commander of Fatah when he was arrested in 2002 and convicted of a role in deadly attacks against Israelis. He is serving multiple life terms but is widely touted as a future Palestinian president.
Meshaal described the lopsided swap as “a national achievement” for the Palestinians, whose struggle for statehood has been crippled by the divide between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
“This deal embodies and strengthens the unity of the people by including all the factions,” Meshaal said.
Abbas, traveling in South America, praised the deal.
“We’ve worked very hard for a long time to reach this agreement and reach this objective,” Abbas said after meeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “The Israeli soldier will finally return to his family ... but there are 5,000 jailed Palestinians in Israeli prisons, whose families are impatiently waiting for them.”
Though lacking Saadat and Barghouti, the swap will resonate with Palestinians, who regard the 6,000 or more prisoners held by Israel as national heroes and freedom fighters.
Good moment for Hamas
From a domestic perspective, the timing comes at a good moment for Hamas. A hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners whose demands include an end to solitary confinement is making daily headlines in the Palestinian media.
The prisoner swap switches attention back to the Islamist group that has appeared eclipsed in recent weeks by Abbas’ drive to secure full U.N. membership for a Palestinian state in the face of stiff U.S. and Israeli opposition.
Hamas’ criticism of the diplomatic move had appeared out of tune with public support that peaked with a strong speech Abbas delivered to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23.
“Hamas proves again that it has cards and they can pull them out at the speed of light,” said Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political commentator. “It’s about scoring goals. It isn’t a matter of elections, it's about credibility.”
For now, the opinion polls are of little consequence to either Fatah or Hamas: neither is likely to face an electoral test any time soon because of the division between Gaza and the West Bank. The split has persisted, despite an agreement announced in May designed to end it.
But credibility matters to both. Abbas, 76, a believer in peace negotiations despite a deadlock that has lasted over a year, has enhanced his standing in recent months, showing a more defiant approach towards Israel and the United States.
He has stuck by his commitment not to return to talks with Israel without a full halt to its settlement construction on land where the Palestinians aim to found an independent state.
And his attempt to secure U.N. membership, though doomed to failure by the prospect of a U.S. veto, has won support as a welcome change after two decades of negotiations.
Hamas’ critics, meanwhile, say the movement has been facing a credibility crisis, struggling to reconcile its commitment to armed struggle against Israel with the responsibilities of governing Gaza, where it seized power from Abbas in 2007.
They have pointed to a contradiction between Hamas’ words and deeds as it has sought to rein in militants whose rocket attacks into Israel have drawn punishing reprisals.
In his televised address, a defiant Meshaal promised to secure the release of more prisoners. “We met our promise to you today, and we will do so tomorrow, God willing,” he said.
Hamas and Israel are bitter enemies. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds, and Israel blockaded Gaza after Hamas seized power there in 2007, carrying out a large-scale invasion in 2009 to try to stop daily rocket attacks on Israel. More than 1,500 Gaza Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids and airstrikes since the soldier was captured.
In the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, thousands of Hamas supporters flocked the streets, led by masked militants. Cars with loudspeakers played praise for Hamas. Thousands of other Gazans rushed to their border with Egypt, clutching Palestinian and Egyptian flags, tossing flowers and cheering, according to AP.
Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, smiled as he threw candy to celebrating backers.
News of the deal set off wild celebrations at a protest tent erected by Shalit’s family outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. Several hundred people danced in the street and waved flags with Shalit’s image on it.
The soldier’s father, Noam, has become a well-known public figure by pushing for his son’s freedom.
The deal was also an important milestone for the new military authorities in Egypt, which both sides credited with brokering the deal and who emerge with a heightened aura of regional leadership.