By Julia Pettengill and Houriya Ahmed
On 11th October 2011, Israel and Hamas announced their agreement to exchange IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, captured and held by Hamas in 2006, for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. The first stage of the prisoner swap is expected to take place on 18th October.
It is worth assessing what drove Israel and Hamas to arrive at this long-awaited deal and Egypt to act as principle brokers, as well as the implications the deal will have, particularly for Fatah, the party in control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
- Gilad Shalit was captured by Gaza-based militants in a cross border raid on 25th June 2006, and since been held captive. Hamas has claimed responsibility for his capture and Israel has been unable to ascertain his whereabouts. Talks for his release between the two parties have been on-going since Shalit’s capture with no conclusive settlement reached.
- On 11th October, Israel and Hamas agreed to a prisoner swap deal, which would see the release of Shalit and 1,027 Palestinian prisoners from a variety of political factions, including Hamas. Negotiations took place in Cairo and were principally mediated by Egypt, but also tangentially involved Turkey and Germany. Qatar is also believed to have assisted from behind-the-scenes.
- Shalit is expected to be transferred to Egypt in exchange for 450 Palestinian prisoners, who will be released within the next few days. The remaining will be released over the next two months. According to reports, of the 450 prisoners, 131 will be returned to Gaza; 110 to the West Bank; and 203 will be deported (40 of those will be barred from Israel and the Palestinian territories). Qatar, Turkey and reportedly Syria have in principle agreed to host some of the deported prisoners. The swap does not include Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP Chief Ahmed Sadat.
- Domestic pressure – Government facing pressures from a polarised Knesset and divided public. Mass protests over economic issues have placed a significant strain on the ruling coalition, and the main opposition party, Kadima, has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of perpetuating the current stalemate in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The return of Shalit is an issue with emotive appeal, likely designed to restore public confidence and smooth over divisions within government and Knesset.
- Regional isolation – Regional upheaval, regime changes and the breakdown in relations with previously reliable allies (Egypt and Turkey) has isolated Israel diplomatically and made it subject to potential strategic threats. The deal gives Israel the opportunity to smooth over its differences with those powers by giving them a role in high-profile negotiations. Israel has publicly thanked Egypt and Turkey for their mediation efforts.
- Retaliation against Fatah – The Fatah-led bid for statehood recognition at last month’s opening of the UN General Assembly infuriated Israel. It is likely that the deal may be an attempt at embarrassing Fatah by handing a PR victory to Hamas. This may also be part of a more familiar “divide-and-rule” strategy, aimed at fomenting divisions between Fatah and Hamas.
- Netanyahu’s political capital – Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September, which both denounced the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral bid for statehood recognition and accused the UN of double legal and human rights standards with respect to Israel and other countries, was ectastically received in Israel, giving the PM a major political boost. Coming after weeks of civil protests over Israel’s high housing prices, and a seemingly weakened alliance between Israel and the United States, Netanyahu’s rhetorical victory gave him enough capital to strike a compromise with Israel’s avowed terrorist enemy.
- Garner popular support – The release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from all political factions is an issue that commands enormous popular support from Palestinians throughout the territories. A June 2011 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows support for Hamas is declining: only 28% of those surveyed would vote for Hamas in legislative elections, compared with the 44% of the votes received in the 2006 elections. By claiming credit for the swap, Hamas can present themselves as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and true leaders of the resistance movement.
- Propaganda coup over Fatah – The two parties remain rivals despite the “unity deal” struck on 4 May 2011, which nominally put an end to the divisions caused by Hamas’ unexpected electoral victory in 2006 and the subsequent 2007 civil war and coup d’état in Gaza. The groundswell of popular support in the Palestinian territories for the Fatah-led UN statehood bid in September 2011 likely made Hamas feel they had been outflanked. This deal allows them to recapture much-needed public attention.
- Building diplomatic credentials – The deal may also be part of an on-going PR effort to present themselves as rational, pragmatic actors capable of negotiating with Israel and working constructively with regional mediators. It is possible that Hamas is courting Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to establish a new base for their political operations in the likely event that their Syrian patrons, the Assad regime, collapse.
- Enhancing regional importance – The diplomatic gravitas gained from successfully mediating any Israeli-Palestinian dispute is perhaps Egypt’s most important motivation for brokering the deal. This role enables Egypt to communicate their continued importance as a regional actor, regardless of internal troubles.
- Reliable partner for Israel and Hamas – the ruling Supreme Military Council (SMC) can present themselves as a responsible and indispensable partner. The previous Mubarak regime was seen as an ally to Israel and a foe to Hamas. By presenting themselves as amicable, the new Egypt can gain leverage over both actors. Additionally, the SMC may hope to secure essential American support by pursuing friendlier relations with Israel.
- Securing popular legitimacy – Under increasing criticism for their stewardship of the country in its supposed transition to democracy, the SMC’s role in brokering the deal could provide them with much-needed popular support in advance of the elections. Also, pursuing a closer relationship with Hamas and delivering a favourable outcome to the Palestinians allows Egypt to challenge the accusation of acting as Israel’s stooge.
A pyrrhic victory for Israel
If Shalit is delivered home safely, it will be a cause for genuine celebration for a country increasingly hampered by domestic and international troubles. As such, the embattled Prime Minister Netanyahu may have calculated that securing Shalit’s freedom would provide him a much-needed political boost. The deal united his otherwise fractured Cabinet, where 26-3 voted in favour. The public, however, are showing signs of divisions, with some accusing Netanyahu as capitulating to terrorist demands. As members of the Israeli public have noted, there is also the very real threat that this unequal exchange will merely encourage Hamas to continue their terrorist tactic of hostage taking. As Abu Mujahed, a Gaza-based Hamas spokesman argued, “Israel only understands this language.”
Hamas strengthened or desperate?
Agreeing to a swap that will force the exile of 40 prisoners and does not include popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP Chief Ahmed Sadat, represent significant concessions by Hamas. This could be seen as evidence of their desperation, rooted in their fundamental lack of democratic legitimacy in Gaza, and their uncertain future in Damascus. Neither the Gaza strip nor the PA-administered West Bank held the elections due to have been held last year. As a consequence, both parties have become increasingly dependent on dramatic, headline-grabbing action to garner grass-roots support. The degree to which Hamas gains anything more than short-term advantages from the deal depends on the outcome of the Syrian uprising and Fatah’s ability to outflank them in securing concessions from Israel and/or a return to peace negotiations.
Diplomatic achievement for Egypt
Coming on the heels of their orchestration of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal in May 2011, the swap is another significant diplomatic success for the embattled transitional government. After months of increasing tension between Egypt and Israel, the prisoner swap could be interpreted as a way for both actors to recalibrate their relationship and move towards a mutually acceptable modus vivendi. This is highlighted by the fact that Israel has publicly thanked Egypt for making the deal possible, and apologised last week for the death of six Egyptian security forces in August’s border skirmishes between Israel and Gaza-based militants. Additionally, involvement in the swap may also be a way of intensifying the bidding war between Fatah and Hamas for Egyptian support. Following the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, a key patron of Fatah, the SMC seems to have intentionally cultivated their openness to working with both parties—as demonstrated in their involvement in the unity deal. However, by orchestrating the deal between Hamas and Israel and supporting Fatah’s bid for UN statehood in September, they have now left it to Fatah to secure Egyptian support. With Hamas, the SMC may also be attempting to secure cooperation on key issues such as border security.
The timing of the prisoner swap deal seems attributable to weaknesses of the Israeli government and Hamas: both needed a crowd-pleasing development to boost their popular appeal. However, the gains made in the short run by both actors could be to the detriment of Fatah. Hamas could use the deal to paint Fatah as ineffectual and impotent, which could prove persuasive to a frustrated Palestinian population if they see a lack of progress in peace with Israel and achieving statehood. The deal could also undermine Fatah’s reputation abroad by convincing key regional powers such as Egypt as well as Turkey and Qatar—who have already demonstrated their amenability to working with Hamas—to lend increasing support to Hamas.
Hamas has not missed the opportunity to goad Fatah over their success: Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar has boasted that unlike his party, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has never secured the release of Palestinian prisoners on this scale. There are already signs that Fatah is trying to regain the upper-hand lost by this deal. Fatah Central Committee member, Jibril Rajoub, has insisted that the PLO conduct the second phase of the prisoner swap. Hamas’ tactics of trying to weaken Fatah by extension undermines the agreement reached between the two to reconcile in May 2011. The two parties remain rivals, and their much-vaunted “unity deal” presently seems to be nothing more than political theatre.
Houriya Ahmed and Julia Pettengill are the authors of “Regional Actors and the Fatah-Hamas Unity Deal: Shifting Dynamics in the Middle East?”
Additional research assistance provided by Ravi Sodha