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Israel – Hamas Prisoner Swap Deal: Arab Perspectives

 

October 30, 2011

by Avi Melamed

About 3 years ago, Khaled Mashal (also known as Abu Walid) the leader of Hamas in Damascus, received a phone call from Omar Suleiman, the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service.

“I have some good news, Abu Walid,” said Suleiman, “Israel has agreed to release one thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for (the Israeli soldier that was abducted by Hamas in June 2006) Gilad Shalit.”

Mashal was ecstatic!

“Great news!” he said “You have the green light from me to close the deal.”

Omar Suleiman informed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president at the time, and Mubarak in turn, informed Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria.

Assad was furious.

“Mashal is not in a position to give the green light!” he said.

Assad was right.  Mashal, like the rest of Hamas’ political leaders, had no authority and was in no position, to give the green light about anything regarding Gilad Shalit.  In fact, Mashal was totally clueless as to the whereabouts of the Israeli soldier.

The only ones who had a say regarding the issue of Gilad Shalit were Ahmed al Ja’abari, the commander of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades – Hamas’ military wing, or Hamas’ patrons, President Assad of Syria and the Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Al Quds Force (the backbone of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) who reports directly to Iran’s spiritual and most senior leader – Ali Khamenei.

This story is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the factors and calculations involved in the story of the abducted Israeli soldier. In a previous article I wrote entitled “Cautious Optimism”, I gave you a “behind the scenes” glimpse as to why I thought the odds for his release were increasing.

In this article I would like to explore another aspect of this story.  I want to share with you how the way Arab world views the prisoners swap deal following the exchange of Gilad Shalit for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

In the short run, Hamas can be satisfied.  The deal restored – temporarily – Hamas’ declining popularity in the Palestinian street.  But, the emphasis here is on the word “temporarily.” It didn’t take long for the first voices in the Arab world criticizing both the deal and Hamas to appear.

In the days immediately following the swap – which resulted in the release of the initial 477 Palestinian prisoners – the criticism was somewhat soft and subdued.  No one really wanted to ruin the party.  So the critics expressed appreciation to Hamas and voiced their hope that it wouldn’t take long until all of the Palestinian prisoners still imprisoned in Israeli jails would be released.

After the first few days, however, the criticism became less restrained.

Here are some examples representing the discontent with the deal Hamas brokered:

One Arab journalist was doing the math.  According to his calculations, Hamas would have to “abduct seven more Shalits and would need to conduct negotiations for thirty-five years” in order to release all the Palestinians who are imprisoned in Israeli jails.

Hamas had made public commitments and official statements that there would be no deal without the release of major Palestinian leaders that are considered to be “Palestinian symbols” like Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader, or Ahmad Sa’adat, the leader of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine.  Hamas did not keep its commitment.  These people, and other symbolic figures, remain in jail.

Hamas does not get to decide who will be released in the second phase of the deal – that will be Israel’s call.  In other words, more that 50% of the total number of the Palestinian that are supposed to be released will be determined by Israel and Israel alone.

Hamas succumbed to Israel’s demand that some of the prisoners that were released would be deported permanently or temporarily to other countries.  One of the released Palestinians is Walid Akl, one of the founders of the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades. He is not going back to the Gaza Strip.  He was deported to Turkey.

Hamas agreed that Israel alone would decide who would be deported temporarily or permanently.

Hamas agreed that Israel would decide how long the temporary deportees will have to be away and under what conditions they will be allowed to return to the Palestinian areas.

By making the deal, Hamas lost its only card while Israel has many cards left to play.

One cynical Arab journalist wrote: “By accepting the (above) terms, Hamas is creating a new generation of Palestinian refugees so that Hamas will have a reason to continue its fight…” 

Some critics were even more outspoken:

Some point to the fact that Hamas likes to portray itself as the liberator of Palestinians. Yet, Hamas says nothing and does nothing about the thousands of Palestinians who are imprisoned in the notorious jails of Syria, the ally and sponsor of Hamas.

A Kurdish writer wrote about the Kurdish term “Fashcariya.”   That word describes a small-time thug that terrorizes his neighborhood, yet he is nothing more than a hot air balloon, that sooner or later ends up in the garbage can of history.   In that category he includes Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and Hamas.

In addition to the criticism the deal evokes among Arabs towards Hamas, as represented above, another kind of condemnation voiced in the Arab street is not focusing directly on Hamas.

It is rather a kind of irritation that reflects a sense of humiliation among Arabs.

That feeling is manifested in the many commentaries written by Arab journalists and bloggers who argue that “One Israeli soldier was traded for more than 1000 Palestinians” i.e. one Israeli “equals” 1000 Arabs. This sense of humiliation is not new.  It was also expressed in previous swap deals.

And finally, the prisoners swap deal between Israel and Hamas reveals the different ways Israel is portrayed in the Arab world.

Not surprisingly, some Arabs view the price that Israel paid for the release of Gilad Shalit as a sign of the continuing process of the weakening of Israeli society.  Thus, they conclude that Israelis indeed a “weak spider web that inevitably will be torn apart.”   The concept of “Israel as a weak spider web that inevitably will be torn apart” was made by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, in Lebanon following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

On the other hand, many Arabs express feelings of admiration for Israel because of its commitment to bring its soldiers back home and the willingness of Israeli citizens to pay a painful price to achieve that goal.

These feelings of admiration evoke envy and frustration – totally understandable given the current events in the Arab world. Day after day shocking and horrifying pictures are streaming in from the Arab world.  The Assad regime butchers its own people in Syria; incited Muslims butcher Copts in Egypt;  and innocent civilians – children, women, men, and the elderly – are killed on a daily basis in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and other places throughout the Arab world.  Human rights are endlessly violated in different parts of the Muslim and Arab world and life seems to have no value.

And at the same time, Arabs watch the picture of Israeli senior leaders – the President, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff – personally welcome a single Israeli soldier who came back home.

Given the chaotic reality that rules large parts of the Muslim and Arab world, it is no wonder that many people express feelings of deep frustration and despair and it does not surprise me that more than once I have come across Arab bloggers who openly say…..“How I wish I lived in Israel.”

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