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Time of change for Hamas

The prisoner exchange deal capped developments pushing Hamas in Gaza towards reconciliation with Fatah and integration - with consequences - into the wider Arab order

Saleh Naami , Monday 2 Jan 2012
Gaza Strip
Palestinians from the Gaza Strip celebrate the release of hundreds of prisoners following a swap with captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on 18 October 2011 in Gaza City. (Photo: AFP)

From his seat on the balcony with a view of the sea, Rateb Zeidan, 45, is carefully watching the waves ebb and flow on the shore. Zeidan looks at the blue azure filling the horizon, and even as he speaks he keeps an eye on the enchanting scene. He is one of the prisoners released from Israeli prisons two months ago as part of the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel.

Zeidan's family lives in the West Bank, but he was exiled to the Gaza Strip upon his release after spending 21 years behind bars. He was serving a double life sentence plus 20 years after being convicted of killing three occupation soldiers in a battle with Israeli military forces. The fight was in response to a massacre by occupation forces in the village of Qabya near Ramallah at the beginning of the first Intifada that killed 10 Palestinians and injured dozens.

Although it has been two months since his release, Zeidan still cannot believe he is free. "I feel as if I was a wilting plant for a long time, and suddenly the rain came," he tells Al-Ahram Weekly. "It's a wonderful feeling of repose, joy and disbelief." He said he can't stop looking at the sea and walking on the beach because for 21 years his feet did not touch sand.

During the interview, many released prisoners were walking on the beach despite very cool temperatures, and some even played in the water.

If the eruption of revolutions for democratic transformation was the key event of 2011 in many Arab states, the most important event in Palestine was accomplishing the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. Never in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had the Palestinian resistance been able to force Israel to release Palestinian prisoners.

The prisoner exchange deal was a substantial and crucial national accomplishment for Palestinians that markedly improved the national public mood. "The prisoner exchange is the most positive reward of Palestinian resistance," asserted Salah Ayad, whose brother Hamed was released after 22 years in jail. "My brother was serving a life sentence, and if it wasn't for the deal he would have died in prison. But today, he is free, has married and is dreaming about starting a family at the age of 45."

Nonetheless, some Palestinian commentators believe that after the deal there are many challenges awaiting the Palestinian resistance, especially Hamas, and so urge for caution. This is especially pertinent regarding resistance operations against Israel, such as launching missiles from the Gaza Strip.

Nahed Al-Sheikh, a writer, believes that Netanyahu's government understands the implications of the deal for the Palestinians, in terms of boosting Hamas's popularity. It also knows the strong criticism by the Israeli elite of the deal who said it represented "subjugation and weakness" in the face of what they described as "terrorism". They argue that it corroded Israeli deterrence in confronting resistance.

Al-Sheikh continued that after the deal Netanyahu's government would be more sensitive to resistance operations launched from Gaza, and would use it as a pretext to use unequal force in response to these operations, irrespective of the outcome. He explained that the Israelis would use their response to resistance operations in the future as a means to rebuild their deterrence in confronting Palestinian factions.

Other Palestinians believe that Hamas should realise that after the prisoner exchange deal there is a need to integrate Palestinians in the new Arab order that has been shaped by the revolutions for democratic change in the Arab world. Sources told the Weekly that some figures inside Hamas are working on ending the bilateral nature of the confrontation with Israel. The group is trying to create an extensive Arab front to confront Israel that would require Hamas and other resistance factions to integrate into the Arab order, because such integration would curtail Israel's dominance. Especially that Tel Aviv knows it must be mindful of Arab public opinion before taking any steps towards the Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Nonetheless, these circles warned Hamas that integrating into the order taking shape in the Arab world requires the resistance to coordinate action towards Israel with the Arab environment, especially resistance operations. Hamas is also advised to show flexibility and wisdom and not be roused by Israel's provocations.

The group should be mindful of unstable conditions in Arab states after the revolutions for democratic change and that many domestic challenges are distracting Arab governments, especially the ones that overthrew despotic regimes and are now transitioning, most prominently Egypt. At the same time, the resistance -- especially Hamas -- is counselled not to base its policies towards Israel entirely on consultation and coordination with the Arabs.

After the exchange deal, more members within Hamas support national reconciliation with Fatah. This resulted in a conspicuous and public dispute among leading figures in Hamas. Many group leaders, especially those abroad, are convinced that the group cannot be integrated into the Arab order unless it reconciles with Fatah. This would require Hamas to agree to significant compromises, such as supporting peaceful resistance over armed resistance in the coming phase.

This position was declared after a recent meeting in Cairo between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal, the director of Hamas's politburo. Although the camp urging for reconciliation with Fatah realises that Abbas has not taken genuine steps to achieve reconciliation, they believe Abbas, his Palestinian Authority, and Fatah have a very narrow margin to manoeuvre. This is especially true after the completion of the prisoner exchange deal that made Palestinians ponder the effectiveness of Abbas's insistence to pursue settlement and sacrifice national unity (essentially a gamble on the benefits of opening up to the outside world).

The pro-reconciliation camp believes that Abbas has only two options: either achieve reconciliation that allows for the restructuring of Palestinian affairs based on new foundations, or risk completely losing credibility in front of the Palestinian masses. They assert that reconciliation will not only benefit Abbas but also everyone on the Palestinian scene, especially Hamas, since rebuilding national solidarity limits Israel's ability to attack Palestinians and eliminates excuses by Arab regimes to abandon their responsibilities towards the Palestinian people.

It appears that the head of the Gaza government, Ismail Haniyeh, is in the opposite Hamas camp, which is unenthusiastic about reconciliation. Haniyeh adopts positions that embarrass the group's leadership abroad, such as declaring at celebrations of Hamas's 24th anniversary: "Armed resistance is the strategic method and choice to liberate Palestinian land from the sea to the river." It was as if he wanted to overturn what Meshal and Abbas agreed on regarding "popular resistance".

Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, a leading Hamas figure, went even further in statements to the Weekly. Al-Zahhar described Abbas as "the major obstacle hindering reconciliation because he is still counting on the Israel-US axis. Being bound to the US makes it difficult for Abbas to sincerely and seriously embrace reconciliation. There is a US-Israeli veto on reconciliation, therefore there will be more excuses to avoid ending internal divisions."

He further doubted that Abbas wants to turn over a new leaf. "What new leaf?" Al-Zahhar retorted. "Political arrests continue and security cooperation is in full throttle in pursuit of resistance fighters, to prevent them from moving against the occupation. At the same time, they still stand by earlier positions. After all this, how can there be talk of turning over a new leaf?"

Nevertheless, within Hamas, those calling for reconciliation are more than those who oppose it. But despite this internal dispute, it is obvious that the prisoner exchange deal has pushed Hamas towards reconciliation and convinced its leadership of the need to integrate into the Arab order that is taking shape after the Arab revolutions.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.