Gilat Shalit swap: what next for Israel-Palestine relations?

By Samuel Perriman

After 5 years of captivity and countless hours of excruciating negotiation, Sergeant Gilat Shalit, as well as 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, will be going home. This incredibly one-sided deal could undoubtedly have been secured long before now and at better odds for the Israelis.

But now that both sides have exchanged prisoners and the young men and women are reunited with their respective families, what does it all mean for the broader Israeli-Palestinian context? Unfortunately, probably not very much.

While the prisoner swap may have been a historic deal, we certainly shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. It won’t be paving the way to renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Netanyahu administration’s poor attempts at mature, open dialogue with the Palestinian Authority are enough to remind even the most optimistic of Middle East watchers that the two sides won’t be shaking hands any time soon. The region is experiencing one of its most unpredictable and volatile phases in its modern history and neither side is willing to take any big risks. There are no deals in sight on the major issues and talks have effectively come to a halt.

The deal might have been more significant had it included high-profile Palestinian prisoners such as Ahmad Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or Marwan Barghouti, a former Fatah leader with a national reputation.

No, the swap is not indicative of Israel-Palestinian relations but is rather revealing of each side’s internal political maneuvering. For Hamas, the deal made perfect sense. As Gazans watched the momentous changes sweeping through the rest of the Middle East they have become increasingly frustrated with Hamas.

Thanks to a faltering economy and the Islamist group’s medieval social policies the Gaza strip has frozen in time. Hamas needed a morale booster or at the very least a simple distraction. The deal seems to have done the trick, if the scenes of jubilation in Gaza City are anything to go by.

The move also helped Hamas in its rivalry with the PA chief Mahmoud Abbas. While Abbas may have grabbed the world’s attention with his bid for UN statehood, a symbolic and largely hollow act, Hamas has delivered concrete gains at home. A total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners will eventually be released, all of them with friends and family who are now very grateful to Hamas.

Lastly, the swap may have gone some way in resolving the problem with Syria. Although the external Hamas leadership has long relied on the passive acquiescence of the Assad regime, the beleaguered dictator is unlikely to be around for much longer. Hamas needs other options and Egypt probably seemed like a good alternative. After all, Cairo controls the Gaza-Egypt border and it was the Egyptians who helped mediate this latest deal.

Israel’s motivations for the swap are more obvious. First and foremost lies the determination not to leave soldiers behind, whether dead or alive, a belief deeply ingrained in Israeli culture and society. This isn’t the Israeli government’s first attempt to retrieve its people from enemy captivity. Over the past 30 years Israel has released 7,000 political prisoners in order to secure the freedom of 19 Israelis and to retrieve the bodies of another 8.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will undoubtedly gain some political capital from Sergeant Shalit’s return. Mr Netanyahu has been under enormous popular pressure to secure the release and Tuesday’s swap will shore up his support base.

While there has been vocal opposition to the deal, particularly from relatives of some of the Palestinian prisoners’ victims, the Israeli authorities calculated that waiting any longer might scupper the chances of bringing Gilad Shalit home. Continued instability in the region and increasing splits within the ranks of Hamas have kept Israel on edge. Then there was always the fear that Shalit would have been transferred out of Gaza to Iran, disappearing completely from the Shin Bet’s radar.

While the deal will not be heralding a new phase of negotiation in the Israel-Palestinian conflict the danger is that it will instead vindicate Hamas’ hostage taking, therefore encouraging armed resistance. Similarly, there is a fear that some of the released Palestinians will only return to continue their fight, even carrying out terrorist attacks against civilians.

The Palestinian prisoner movement has shown a certain political maturity, often lacking elsewhere, calling for dialogue between Fatah and Hamas and negotiation with Israel. But an increase in violence would tragically stunt the Palestinians’ aspirations for legitimacy and recognition on the world stage and give Israel the cover it needed to continue building settlements in the West Bank.

Even free of Israel’s prisons, these men and women still live under its rules. Those deemed most dangerous are not allowed to return to the West Bank and are instead facing a lifetime in forced exile. Of the 40 prisoners sent abroad, 15 went to Damascus, 11 to Ankara, one to Jordan, and the rest will be heading to Qatar.

At the end of the day, the Gilat Shalit swap should be seen for what it was: a deal. For years Israel believed that negotiating for the release of its captured sergeant could only result in victory for Hamas. The Netanyahu administration finally saw sense, gave Hamas what it wanted, and retrieved its soldier.

Hamas always had the stronger hand to play; Israel simply had to accept that fact. As well as bringing home a captured Israeli soldier and over a thousand Palestinians, the politicians will have brought some temporary relief to nagging internal problems. Everyone gains; even if it was somewhat one-sided. But while the deal indicates that the two sides can at the very least talk to each other, peace is nowhere closer.

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