Beyond the swap deal: Who is the big winner?

The prisoner swap benefits Hamas, Egypt, and – for now – Israel, but hurts Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called the prisoner swap deal a ‘national achievement’ for Palestinians [GALLO/GETTY]

The implementation of the prisoner swap that took place between Hamas and Israel last Tuesday is expected to end an ordeal that has lasted more than five years, for which the people of Gaza have paid a heavy price since June 2006.

While the deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners is seen largely as a Palestinian national achievement, the real question continues to remain: Who stands to gain from this deal?

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ leader, announced from Damascus that the deal included the release of more than 300 prisoners serving life terms in Israeli jails, and added that they were drawn from all the Palestinian factions. Meshaal described the swap deal as “a national achievement” for the Palestinians, whose struggle for statehood has been crippled by fall-out from the rift between Hamas and Fatah.

Domestically, Hamas’ largest victory has been highlighted by its ability to re-construct its credibility which was shaken when it opposed the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) move for statehood at the UN. Tom Perry, Reuters news agency’s Ramallah correspondent, said the prisoner swap allowed Hamas to “score points over President Mahmoud Abbas and steal some of the thunder he generated by pushing for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations”. According to Perry, Hamas’ critique of the PA’s push for statehood dragged the movement into a “credibility crisis”.

“This strengthens Hamas and weakens Fatah.

– Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen

As described in blunt terms by Yoram Cohen, chief Israeli’s internal security service, Shin Bet,  on Israel Radio, “this strengthens Hamas and weakens Fatah”. 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. 

When negotiations were finalised, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, was in South America being rebuffed by the Colombians in his appeal for support for the already-doomed-to-fail UN membership bid, while Hamas was securing concrete achievements back home. Given the number of people who have passed through Israeli jails over the years, the prisoner issue speaks to just about every Palestinian family.

Hamas can now expect an uptick of support by emphasising that the deal is a united, national Palestinian achievement, reflected in the cross-factional list of prisoners to be released.

Despite the fact that Palestinian political icons Ahmed Saadat and Marwan Barghouti will not be released as part of the prisoner exchange, the swap deal will resonate with Palestinians and prisoners held by Israel as national heroes and freedom fighters.

Hamas and Israel seal prisoner swap deal

Advantage for Netanyahu

Maintaining healthy diplomatic relations with Egypt has been a priority for Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has been vocal about Israel’s concern over deteriorating relations with Egypt as a result of the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. 

The deal has been a big boost for Netanyahu’s cabinet, whose opponents charged that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated from the international community.

The prisoner exchange is likely to increase Netanyahu’s popularity in the short term, but that public support could change quickly if there are serious attacks on Israeli cities, Yossi Verter wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz.

Israel has achieved victory by making the prisoner swap deal possible, Marcus Sheff, the executive director of the Israel Project, told Al Jazeera. According to Sheff, none of the senior Palestinian leaders are going to be released from Israeli jails. Many prisoners are not allowed to go back to their homes in the West Bank, while many others have been sent into exile. Moreover, East Jerusalem prisoners have to check in with the Israeli police on a weekly basis.

Apart from failing to see the human side of the deal, Sheff has highlighted why Israel was willing to sign the deal and eventually will be victorious.

Window of opportunity

Within the context of the Arab Spring, Israel needs to fundamentally reposition itself by ending the occupation and its denial of Palestinian freedom and equality. Arab democracies will be less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement than Arab autocracies. Unfortunately, this has not exactly made it onto the Netanyahu’s radar screen. It is perhaps too much to hope that he has now genuinely been bitten by the realist bug.

The ongoing dramatic changes sweeping the Middle East pose many opportunities for Palestinians and the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. With the fall of Mubarak and his regime, Egypt is set to increase its political power.

Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt tried to maintain a monopoly on two Palestinian-related fronts: the Shalit issue and the re-unification talks. Mubarak failed to secure any real progress on either of those fronts, giving rise to reasonable suspicion that he was more interested in being an indispensable broker than he was in achieving results. Since Mubarak’s fall, however, the new regime has successfully brokered at least an initial breakthrough on the Palestinian unity front and has now been key in this Shalit deal.

Officials from both sides praised Egypt’s contribution to the deal. On Twitter, the Israeli prime minister tweeted his thanks to Egypt for making the deal possible. Al Jazeera has reported that Egypt has been “lapping up all the credit and praise”, given recent domestic unrest.

The window of opportunity is Egypt’s ability to take its historical role as a leading country in the region after years of American and Israeli domination.

The Independent reported that the deal is a good reason for optimism and a good opportunity for both sides. It argued that the deal will have dramatic political implications: “The accord between Israel and Hamas could presage others, perhaps a durable ceasefire in Hamas controlled Gaza and perhaps the further easing of the long siege of the territory.”

Hani Mahmoud is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter studying media and policy analysis. He is from Gaza City.

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

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