Hamas Downplays Israel's Prisoner Release

Hamas fears that Fatah's ability to secure a prisoner release via negotiations may undermine its resistance-only approach to freeing Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) holds hands with Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli prisons during celebrations in the West Bank city of Ramallah, early Aug. 14, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

נושאים מכוסים

palestinian, plo, hamas

אוג 14, 2013

Although Hamas has welcomed the release of 26 detainees from Israeli prisons, the Islamic Resistance Movement is not particularly happy about it.

Not so long ago, in 2011, Hamas had achieved a breakthrough by securing the release of 1,047 Palestinian detainees through a prisoner exchange involving the return of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Today, suffering a sharp blow from the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and in a state of political confusion from its repercussions, Hamas has sought to downplay the release of the relatively small number of long-serving Palestinian prisoners within the context of the resumption of negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel under US sponsorship.

Fatah Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas believes that the best way to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is through a peaceful solution, which would include the release of political detainees held in Israeli prisons. He rejects military action as a means of resistance, as adopted by his political rival Hamas.

Hamas had experienced a sort of 'political euphoria' because of its ability to hold Shalit for more than five years and to force Israel to agree to the release of prisoners in exchange for him. This increased its popularity among Palestinians, as it brought joy to more than a thousand Palestinian homes. Hamas believes today, however, that its rival's success in releasing Palestinian prisoners within the umbrella of negotiations will dissuade some Palestinians of the notion that the price paid by Gaza for the capture of Shalit was worth the sacrifice.

An Aug. 11 news conference in Gaza City by Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Khalil al-Hayya on the resumption Palestinian-Israeli negotiations reflected the strong desire on the part of Hamas to undermine any positive outcomes that might result from the release of the detainees.

A statement issued at the conference, read aloud by Zahar, asserted, “Despite our welcome and continuous quest to release any Palestinian prisoner from Israeli jails, we stress that the path to freedom is achieved through victories and sacrifices. Every Palestinian and Arab has known this path through the [Shalit prisoner exchange] and earlier deals, which were not made at the expense of the constants of the Palestinian people and their rights and dignity.”

The statement continued, "We uphold the option of resistance until the liberation of Palestine, all of Palestine; the return of refugees, all refugees; the release of all prisoners; and the cleansing and opening of Jerusalem to the faithful from all parts of the world under Palestinian sovereignty.”

Palestinians at home and in the diaspora attach great importance to the issue of the detainees, as most Palestinian families have a member who has experienced detention in an Israeli prison during the decades of Israeli occupation. A faction that succeeds in releasing prisoners reaps the rewards of appreciation and popularity among the Palestinian people.

Israel currently holds some 5,100 Palestinians prisoner — 440 from the Gaza Strip and the rest from the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and Israeli Palestinians. Of those, 520 are serving life sentences, according to statistics provided by institutions involved with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Abdul Nasser Farwana, a former prisoner and researcher on prisoners, said that more than 13,000 Palestinian prisoners have been released under the political agreements between the PLO and Israel since the 1993 Oslo Accords, while Israel has released approximately 7,500 prisoners in exchange deals since 1968.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Farwana noted that the release of the 26 “veteran prisoners” is the most significant yet in terms of the “quality” of the prisoners released through the political process given the Israeli perspective of their having "blood on their hands,” while the exchange deals by Palestinian factions have been more significant in terms of the quantity of released prisoners.

Regarding methods of prisoner releases, Farwana contended, “I support dual political and military action to release prisoners. Israel had refused to release those it says have 'blood on their hands,’ which implies that they killed Israelis, but it has yielded to Palestinian conditions, whether through exchange deals or political action.”

He continued, “Both the peaceful and military courses have succeeded in securing the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, but at the same time have failed to reach conclusive solutions to any issue, such as the veteran prisoners or those with long sentences. Moreover, there are a number of detained military leaders who I believe Israel will not accept for release as part of the peace process, but [would] through exchange deals.”

The political positions of the factions were reflected in Palestinian media outlets' approaches to the release. While those affiliated with PLO factions ran expansive ​​coverage of the prisoners' release, the outlets affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not carry live footage from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and they even dedicated airtime to criticizing the release for being connected to negotiations, stressing that the only “honorable” release is achieved through “resistance.”

Abbas, recognizing the importance of the detainees to the Palestinian public, tried to whip up popular support with the release of prisoners of a special caliber due to the resumption of political negotiations with Israel. The deal came at a time during which Palestinians had lost hope in the possibility that negotiations would ever achieve a major breakthrough in light of continued settlement activity in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Meanwhile, Hamas grows increasingly isolated in the Gaza Strip, becoming a prisoner of its fear about the regional changes spinning around it and their implications.

Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as a news producer for BBC World Service, contributed to Deutsche Welle and has written for The Guardian, Al-Raya (Qatar) and other publications. He is the founder of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development (PICD). On Twitter: @iHaZeMi

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