Hamas and Israel: Captives of war and peace

The recent prisoner swap shows that despite Hamas’ and Likud’s intransigence, compromise is always possible.

In an exchange for releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israel were freed [GALLO/GETTY]

Much contemporary thinking on the recent Israel-Hamas prisoner swap is riddled with mistaken attempts to discern who the winners and losers are.

The prisoner swap is a test. It tests not just endurance in the pursuit of immutable goals. More importantly, the swap also tests whether Hamas and Israel could directly negotiate for peace.

But first, a word must be said about peace in the age of Arab revolution.

It remains to be seen how revolution in low politics leads to a revolution in high politics. In the Gulf, the Iranians and Saudis engage yet again in performative acts of sabre-rattling.  

The question of soft power and its enabling potential – as attested to by the freedom negotiated for Gilad Shalit and 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – busts archetypal thinking about a disorderly Arab Spring. Indeed, the Arab Spring has rekindled pan-Arab affinity. But this does not necessarily mean war-making in the support or pursuit of legitimate rights, including Palestinian statehood.

The Mubarak-Suleiman-Dahlan crew was not interested in the idea of a prisoner swap. Mubarak was blinded by the fallacy that a successful prisoner swap would be a victory for Hamas, and that this victory would also rebound to Mubarak’s arch-enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Dahlan, like many in Fatah, interpreted a prisoner swap as something from which Hamas would gain, instead of thinking of the hundreds of families whose loved ones languished in Israeli prisons.

To an extent, the Arab revolution, pending what happens in Syria, may free the hands of Hamas in rejecting the guardianship or blackmail of political patriarchs – Mubarak, Gaddafi and the like – in the pursuit of a fully nationalist agenda that does not overlap with regional power players or financial benefactors.

Artful diplomacy

There are no politics without a set of durable objectives and guidelines. That is where art comes into it: negotiating to surmount the inflexible and the immutable. In this prisoner swap, the Israelis displayed artistry, and the Palestinians displayed mastery of the endgame behind the painstaking negotiations, which were facilitated by Egyptians and Germans.

Israeli drones and unmanned ‘flying objects’ have possibly filmed every square metre of the Gaza Strip.”

In order to free Shalit, the Israelis had to relax their own rules of engagement in dealing with the prisoner swap file. Life-time prison sentences, Jerusalemites, and generally prisoners charged with killing Israelis were previously non-negotiable, customarily not included in prisoner swaps.

This “artistry” comes after Israel has exhausted so many means of finding Shalit dead or alive: complicated espionage operations, collaborative espionage efforts with neighbouring Arab states, including Egypt; massive recruitment of collaborators among Palestinians; and, of course, the devastating 2008-09 war against Gaza and the siege maintained for more than five years, the period of Shalit’s detention by Hamas and partner factions.

Moreover, Israeli drones and unmanned “flying objects” have possibly filmed every square metre of the Gaza Strip in search of clues about Shalit’s whereabouts.

Here lies the chief lesson of this diplomatic feat: Humans and humanism succeed when and where high-tech machines fail. The trappings of the “system” and its machines promise delivery of “triumph” and “capacity”. Quite often they fail, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is not the inflexibility or leverage of Israel’s invincible war machine that has made the prisoner swap possible. Rather, the credit goes to the human touch of its negotiators and willing politicians.

For Hamas, and by contrast to Israel, it is perhaps the inflexibility of its goals that has seized the day. Of course, inflexibility and flexibility are not absolutes. Hamas, too, had to make compromises, going for a sizeable prisoner swap without, for instance, Marwan al-Bargouthi of Fatah and Ahmad S’adat of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. There were other names too.

There is a secret to the conclusion of this deal. It is not Hamas’s secret. It is the crux of the Palestinian cause, its essence, immutable content, and the secret to its viability. The prisoners are a sacred component of the political “triumvirate” of principles that governs the Palestinian cause: Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the prisoners.

Note how Hamas’ negotiating team had between them about 40 years of imprisonment. All four negotiators were former prisoners. Salih al-‘Arouri alone spent 21 years in incarceration; his fellow politburo member Nizar ‘Awadallah is a former prisoner. The same goes for the two negotiators from the Qassam Brigades, Marwan ‘Issa and Ahmad Al-Ja‘bary, who were imprisoned for 10 years.

The handling of this sensitive file by former prisoners and high-ranking cadres, including from the military wing, points to Hamas’ professional approach.

The prisoners’ file enjoys wide popularity among Palestinians. There are few Palestinian families that don’t include a detainee. Aside from its political status as a winning card, even if ephemerally, the prisoner issue is one of the humanitarian causes unifying Palestinians across all kinds of boundaries: diaspora, ideology, religion and geography.

Indeed, Hamas will gain from it politically. The release of all Palestinian female prisoners and many children; the freedom of 82-year-old Sami Younes, after 28 years in prison; and the release of 58-year-old Fakhri al-Barghouthy, the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner ever, who was incarcerated before he turned 24 years of age – all will be cause for celebration. Hamas may have been the chief Palestinian signatory of the swap, but the prisoners belong to all factions and all geographies of Palestinian dispossession from Gaza to the Golan.   

Neither Arafat nor Abbas were able to secure such deals. 

Cascading goodwill

Hamas’s gain cannot be expected to last long. There are more than 5,000 additional prisoners awaiting freedom, and hundreds of thousands in need of employment. For this, urgent, equal, democratic and serious reordering of the Palestinian house is called for. By joining forces, Fatah and Hamas may upgrade themselves into a force to be reckoned with in negotiating freedom for more prisoners and for statehood.

Now it remains to be seen whether Israel will lift the siege on Gaza after Shalit’s freedom. The prisoner swap has been a microcosmic test for a more extensive negotiation for peace.

Analysis: Hamas-Israel prisoners swap

Negotiating the swap has been a display of the potential as well as the creativity of soft power in bringing the Israeli and Palestinian captives of war and war-making into serious peace talks.

That is, unless we are before an exercise in realpolitik. If so, that is sad for Israelis and Palestinians. Even if necessary, political artistry without moral openness is harmful. The prisoner swap exercise will have been a test in the sense of politics but not in the sense of commitment to real peace. Will the exercise stop illegal land-grabbing, collective punishment and the lifting of the siege? Will it stop the firing of rockets?

In the ordinary person’s unconscious trying to grasp this conflict, the hold of pessimism is very strong. There has thus far been more war than peace. But there is an inevitable irony: At one level, extremes reinforce each other and reproduce intransigence, as Netanyahu’s Likud and Hamas seem to be doing. At another level, the prisoner swap shows that there is no absolute extremism. In politics, absolute extremism spells death.

Maybe it is the prayers and tears of the Palestinian mothers and Shalit’s mother that must be counted in this powerful moment of freedom. They are the faceless victims of this vicious conflict. Mothers who have no doubt saved some left-over tears for the embrace awaited so long so eagerly, so painfully.

Maybe only the Palestinian prisoners and Shalit will understand the power of this moment. They belong to different worlds but as of the moment of their release they will share a similar scar of victimhood. At least, Shalit had the whole diplomatic community visiting Gaza and the West Bank asking after him. The Palestinian prisoners were rarely accorded the same worth – ironically, only by Israeli peaceniks and a committed minority of human rights activists and NGOs.

The deal, through Palestinian eyes, shows how worthy Palestinians are to one another. This is the secret to their survival, steadfastness and peoplehood.

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, like Shalit, are all captivated by a single notion of imagined motherland. For its sake, their existence, glory and downfall is defined by the love of the motherland.

Now, that notion of imagined motherland must summon the forces of goodwill, so that Israeli and Palestinian stop being captives of prisons, unwilling to accept equal imagining of identity and community; so that both, one day, become captivated by genuine peace – desperately needed peace – which delivers all from mutual exclusivity.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.

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

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