The politics behind the prisoner swap

The deal has been discussed since Shalit was captured in 2006, now the time has come for 1028 families to be reunited.

hands tied
Vanloads of prisoners are to be set free in a deal which may boost Netanyahu’s ratings [GALLO/GETTY]

Like so many other diplomatic and political initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent announcement of a new prisoner release is based on the same solution that has been proposed dozens of times before – only to collapse because the time, and often Israeli political will, wasn’t right.

In this case, the separate announcements made by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, asserted that Hamas would release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006, while Israel would release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom have been in jail for decades. 

As Tony Karon wrote in Time magazine’s blog: “Win-win outcomes are all too rare in the Middle East, but the agreement that will see Hamas free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for a reported 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will allow each of its stakeholders to claim victory.” 

That arrangement has been bandied about for years. The fact that it now appears imminent (though its success cannot be claimed until all the prisoners walk out of jail) reflects two seemingly contradictory realities: Israel, the occupying power, continues to control the lives of the occupied Palestinian population, and new regional and international conditions are challenging Israel in dramatic ways.

Asymmetry of power

The control Israel wields over the occupied Palestinian population is evident in the disparity of the prisoner exchange: Palestinians, in this case Hamas, control the life of exactly one Israeli, a captured soldier (and, in fact, Hamas violated international law by denying Shalit access to the Red Cross).

On the other side, even if we put aside Israeli control of land, borders, economy, food, education, and virtually every facet of life in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Israel directly maintains power over the lives of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, some convicted in military courts (illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and others, including elected members of the Palestinian parliament, imprisoned under administrative detention orders (similarly illegal).

Almost from the moment Shalit was captured, Palestinians attempted to arrange a prisoner swap – his freedom in exchange for the freedom of a thousand or more Palestinian prisoners. In this high-stakes poker game, with so many human lives at stake, Shalit was and remains the Palestinians’ only chip. In fact, holding Shalit for a future prisoner exchange was the only reason for Hamas to detain him at all.

Israel gained far more in holding thousands of prisoners (about 6,000 at the moment, up to 11,000 at a time in recent years). As the occupying power it gains complete control over individuals it believes – or claims to believe – represent a security threat. It demoralises the prisoners’ families, friends, neighbours and political allies.

It undermines the family unity that provides the crucial basis for Palestinians’ sumud, or steadfastness, in resisting occupation. And it weakens the already minimal power of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories, as their inability to win the freedom of the prisoners dilutes their tenuous claim to authority.

Again and again, Israel considered – and ultimately rejected – similar deals to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners in return for the freeing of Shalit.

What changed?

As the Arab Spring, new governments in the region, changing regional power relations, the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, and political shifts inside Israel all came together, both sides of the prisoner deal faced new pressures.

Hamas, which governs in the Gaza Strip, suddenly had to answer a rare surge of support (whether long-term or not remains unclear) for its political rival, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. When the PA’s leader Mahmoud Abbas, speaking in the name of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, brought the demand for Palestinian statehood and UN membership to the General Assembly last month, he won a sudden increase of popular acclaim. 

Although Hamas had long sought exactly this kind of prisoner swap, part of the recent effort was likely influenced by its longstanding political rivalry with the PA. Particularly because Hamas’ selection of prisoners to be released was carefully drawn to include not only Hamas members but activists from all political factions, and from all parts of the occupied territory, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, broad popular excitement was certain.

Rumours swirled that Marwan Barghouti, perhaps the best-known Palestinian prisoner and a noted leader of Fatah’s younger generation, would be included, as well as perhaps Ahmed Sadat, a respected leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who has been imprisoned for almost a decade. But then superseding rumours denied that either Sadat or Barghouti would be included. So, questions about the list remain – including whether elected Palestinian legislators would finally be freed.

Regional shifts

Other changes had to do with the region. Despite the recently escalating tensions between the population and the military council which holds overall power in Egypt, the post-Tahrir Square Egyptian government is playing a significantly new role in the region.

Particularly, it has placed a high priority on helping to negotiate a Palestinian unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, and, reportedly, was involved in negotiating the current prisoner deal. Turkey, similarly, has been playing a far more intensive regional role in support of Palestinian rights. And with Israel facing a region without being able to count on its longstanding (however uneasy) allies in Cairo and Ankara, Netanyahu was getting worried.

The Israeli leader’s political fears were undoubtedly also heightened by his dwindling popularity at home. Israel’s growing isolation in the region is now matched by a rising opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership, demonstrated most vividly in the Tel Aviv protests throughout the summer.

Although they began with protests over rising housing costs (and never did make the critical link with Israeli occupation), the demonstrations rapidly morphed into a broad political attack on Netanyahu, punctuated with the previously unimaginable equation of Israel’s elected prime minister with despised Arab dictators. “Mubarak … Assad … Bibi Netanyahu” emerged as the iconic chant of the protesters.

So, a sudden shift toward acceptance of the prisoner deal, despite his previous claims that such an arrangement would somehow put Israel at risk, became a political necessity for Netanyahu. The broad public demand for the government to “do something” to win the release of Shalit had resonated across the political spectrum in Israel, and achieving that will certainly raise Netanyahu’s beleaguered electoral fortunes.

The question now remains whether the deal will go through, whether 1,027 Palestinian families and one Israeli family, plus all the millions on both sides waiting, will finally see their loved ones walk free.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.