Best holiday present

An Israel-Hamas prisoner swap deal appears close to fruition, though no indication has been given yet as to who and how many it includes, writes Khalid Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem

Gilad Shalit


As of Wednesday, 25 November, German and Egyptian mediators were trying hectically to finalise a prisoner swap deal between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, Hamas. The deal would see the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip more than three years ago, in exchange for the release from Israeli detention camps of hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners.

Indirect negotiations aimed at reaching an accord that failed repeatedly due to Israeli intransigence and Hamas’s insistence that Israel free all prisoners included in the original list Hamas presented to Israel more than two years ago. Israel has been worried that the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners would significantly enhance Hamas’s public standing at the expense of Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and also erode Israel’s power of deterrence.

Israel and Hamas, as well as German and Egyptian mediators, have been tight-lipped as to whether a deal is imminent. Some Islamist leaders in the Gaza Strip spoke of “a great Eid Al-Adha present” (referring to the Muslim holiday and feast that comes this weekend) for the Palestinian people and especially for the families of prisoners to be released.

In Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-run government, has reportedly cancelled a trip to Mecca to perform the hajj pilgrimage, apparently in order to receive prisoners to be released. Sources in Gaza said Haniyeh wouldn’t have cancelled his plans unless he had been notified of an imminent breakthrough in ongoing negotiations.

Earlier, a delegation of Hamas’s leaders arrived in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to meet with Khaled Meshaal, head of the group’s politburo. The delegates, including top Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, are expected to return to Cairo before Friday.

Israeli sources said a breakthrough was dependent on whether the Gaza delegates would return to Cairo with a positive message from Meshaal. Some Israeli officials, too, have indicated that a prisoner deal with Hamas is within reach in the coming few days.

One of these is Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour Binyamin Ben Eliezer who told the Israeli media that a deal was closer than ever and that he could say that the captured soldier, Shalit, would be home soon. “I am very happy that this deal is heading to its conclusion very soon. Are we closer than ever? My answer is definitely affirmative.”

However, other Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sought to lower expectations, accusing Hamas of deliberately raising hopes and leaking information in order to exert psychological pressure on the Israeli government. Netanyahu said any deal with Hamas would be presented to the cabinet for approval. “There is no deal as of yet, and I do not know if there will be one,” he told reporters Tuesday. “But one thing I can tell you is that it will first go to the cabinet for approval.”

Hamas, too, has accused Israel of disseminating “false information” about an imminent deal for the purpose of raising unrealistic hopes among the families of Palestinian political prisoners detained in Israel.

In the West Bank, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told an international conference on Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails: “To our heroic prisoners I say, the day of freedom is near. Your freedom is part of the freedom of the homeland and people.” Fayyad had earlier met with German Foreign Minister Guldo Westerwelle who, according to Palestinian sources, informed him that a prisoner exchange deal was in the offing.

German mediator Emst Urlau is playing a key role in getting both Hamas and Israel to open the way for a deal to be finalised. The Israeli media reported earlier that a dispute over a single prisoner was holding up a deal. However, it seems that other important snags remain to be overcome before a breakthrough can be reached. Hamas official Mohamed Nazzal said Israel still had reservations over releasing some prisoners. “If Israel reacts with flexibility, a deal can be reached soon. Otherwise, a deal will be postponed indefinitely. The picture will be clearer in the next few days.”

In addition, Israel reportedly was insisting that a number of “high-profile” prisoners from the West Bank be deported outside occupied Palestine, ostensibly in order to limit the victory their release would constitute for Palestinians. Hamas is refusing the demand, arguing that any such arrangement must be discussed with the prisoners themselves and is illegitimate and likely illegal anyway. Hamas feels it has to deal with this matter with utmost caution since any “blunder” on Hamas’s part would be taken advantage of by Fatah for propaganda purposes.

Indeed, Fatah is already re-launching its propaganda war on Hamas, accusing the Islamic movement of agreeing to Israeli demands that some of prisoners be deported. Fatah is worried that a successful prisoner swap accord between Hamas and Israel would significantly bolster Hamas’s popularity at Fatah’s expense, and may even favour Hamas detainees over Fatah ones.

In addition, over the past few days, Fatah and other Palestine Liberation Organisation officials have been castigating Hamas for trying to get Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza to stop firing homemade projectiles on Jewish settlements adjacent to the Strip. Earlier the same officials, including President Abbas, had criticised Hamas for firing Qassam rockets onto Israeli targets.

Hamas officials in Gaza dismissed PA accusations as being “hypocritical and morally inconsistent”. Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri referred to Fatah spokespersons as “hypocrites and liars”. “These people are paragons of hypocrisy. If we allowed attacks, they would say Hamas is endangering the Palestinian people and giving Israel a pretext to kill our children, but if we observed a hudna (truce) for certain tactical reasons they would say… ‘Look Hamas is abandoning the resistance and having a loving relationship with Israel.’ They are hypocrites and liars. We don’t take them seriously.”

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