Sakher Abu El Oun, AFP
Last updated: 12 October, 2011

Shalit prisoner deal wins Hamas new spotlight

In securing a key prisoner swap deal with Israel, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have wrested the spotlight from Mahmud Abbas’s popular bid for UN membership, analysts said on Wednesday.

The deal, which will see 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit, stands to boost Hamas’s profile at a time when attention has been focused on Abbas and the UN bid.

It is also likely to improve Hamas’s standing in reconciliation talks with Abbas’s rival Fatah party, which have effectively stalled over the issue of who will head an interim government of independents before new elections are held.

“Hamas wants to steal the show, even for a short time, by accepting this deal, even though they didn’t get all the conditions they had previously insisted on,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

“Hamas accepted the exile of several of its leaders, some of them to Gaza and others to foreign countries,” he noted.

Under the deal, 163 Palestinians from the West Bank will be released to the Gaza Strip, with 42 others, two of them women, being sent to as-yet-unspecified third countries.

The releases are expected to take place in two stages, with the first group of 450 being freed within the next week, and a second group of 550 being freed in two months. Twenty-seven women will also be freed during the first stage.

Abu Saada said the delay gave Israel a change to renege on the deal if there was an uptick in violence, but he added that he saw the deal as a way for the Jewish state to weaken Abbas as he seeks international support for UN membership.

“There’s a shared interest for Israel and Hamas in concluding this deal. It’s clear that Israel is seeking, with this agreement, to weaken and marginalise president Abbas, particularly after his historic address to the General Assembly,” he said.

“Hamas’s popularity has been seriously reduced of late as the popularity of Fatah and Abbas has increased,” he added.

Walid al-Mudallal, a professor of political science at the Islamic University in Gaza, described the deal as a “victory” for Hamas.

“It’s a real victory for Hamas as well as for the various resistance groups, and it is a defeat for Israel, which failed to find Shalit,” he said.

Shalit was captured in June 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups including Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and a Salafist group called the Army of Islam.

Among Palestinians, he said, the deal would likely serve “as an important step to confirm the option of resistance” — a line that was also advanced by Hamas official Ismail Radwan.

“This deal shows that resistance is the only option and the best and quickest way to win our rights,” he told AFP.

“We invite Mahmud Abbas and Fatah to urgently begin work on a reconciliation deal that will unite us under a programme of resistance and an agreement on a national strategy,” Radwan added.

Abbas welcomed the deal from Caracas where he has been holding meetings on a tour to win support for the UN bid to secure state membership for Palestine.

But he described it as a “Palestinian national achievement” in a possible nod to his desire to prevent Hamas from taking exclusive credit for the long-awaited release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners.