If Israel could go back in time to October 2011, it wouldn’t have gone through with the exchange agreement with Hamas and released 1,000 of their detained senior members, returned 111 detainees to their homes in the West Bank (45 of which are in Jerusalem), and exiled 163 others to the Gaza Strip for long periods of time in exchange for releasing the detained soldier.
We make this assumption in light of the continued arrest campaigns carried out by the Israeli intelligence agencies and army against the released prisoners in the West Bank. They do so on the grounds that the former prisoners have resumed armed activities, claiming that the main motive driving them to think of capturing Israeli soldiers is the presence of a historical precedent posed by Israel’s yielding to Hamas in the last deal. They believe they can recreate that deal in order to release those still behind bars.
This drove Palestinians to warn against operations targeting released prisoners, after considering these operations an incitement campaign headed by the Shabak, who accused the Palestinians of directing and funding armed operations, especially attempts to capture Israeli soldiers, linking it to their presence in Gaza and the increased number of operations against the army away from watchful eyes.
In addition to this, the Shabak considered exiling prisoners from the West Bank to Gaza a huge mistake because this places them away from observation and detention measures. This was revealed by the attorney Ahlam Haddad, who uncovered a military order written in September 2011, a few days before signing the exchange agreement, which gives Israel the authority to re-arrest the released prisoners based on secret information in order for them to serve the remainder of their sentences. 20 of the released prisoners were arrested by the Israeli army as of the day this article was written.
Perhaps what helps the Israeli intelligence trace the steps taken by these prisoners, in order that they can carry out armed operations, is the great efforts put forth by the Palestinian security agencies against them. If the prisoners are successful in capturing soldiers or settlers to exchange with Palestinian prisoners, it would be a fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority’s political strategy, which consists of the PA begging Israel over and over again to release the prisoners to no avail. Moreover, the success of these armed operations may speed up the army’s decision to attack the West Bank, similar to the Defensive Shield operation in 2002 which caused the permanent destruction of the Palestinian Authority.
Without considering the Israeli army’s claims of the gravity of the measures taken by these prisoners to execute armed operations, a topographic field reading of the reality of the West Bank in terms of operations and geographic dimensions may encourage such concerns without fully trusting what Israel is claiming.
The West Bank is strategically significant to the Palestinian forces on a number of levels and poses a serious threat to Israel, according to Amos Yadlin, former Military Intelligence Directorate, as it is the closest point between its borders in the direction of the west, extending to the heart of Israel and between the sea, which is about 12-15 km away. Furthermore, its mountains overlook the Israeli areas as well as 45 per cent of the western strip.
Therefore, Israel’s plan in the West bank consists of preventing armed wings from recovering to stop them from obtaining qualitative weapons. There is mutual Israeli-Palestinian sense that the West Bank will become the main arena for the upcoming conflict, which is why they are calling it “the new eastern front, the arc of evil”.
In contrast to this, there are indications that rule out the released prisoners’ ability to make a move in the field in the West bank because the Israeli army that invaded its cities continues to occupy these cities and detain activists. Furthermore, it has a network of agents monitoring their moves, which makes their ability to make a move difficult in light of the concentrated military presence in all the cities and villages. The army also works hard to dismantle any armed cells established in the West Bank, which has been confirmed by an Israeli security source at the beginning of the year, especially with the existence of several Israeli military camps, all of which are on alert around the clock.
Whether this is true or not, by uncovering some of the facts or publishing the confessions of the prisoners, the Palestinians believe that Israel’s accusations against the released prisoners are exaggerated by the Israeli intelligence in order to prepare public opinion to accept allegations that the West Bank has become a “hornet’s nest” and that the Palestinians are getting ready to launch advanced qualitative and quantitative assaults, which will justify the army’s attack on them.
According to the Israeli analysis, this all indicated that Hamas is making the effort to re-establish its military network in the West Bank, with the help of its released prisoners, and is directing their contacts to carry out commando operations and focus on capturing Israelis.
Here lies Israel’s regret of striking the exchange deal, as the released prisoners are very far from being arrested or assassinated.
Especially since the fact that Hamas is re-establishing military operations in the West Bank seems natural due to its desire to ignite its hot front in order for it to calm the arena in Gaza after the last war to distract the army with the West Bank’s rugged terrain on one hand, and prevent the PA from taking control on the other, which was a concern expressed by President Mahmoud Abbas during his last meeting with the US Secretary of State John Kerry in Ramallah.
Hamas realises the West Bank is the true battlefield with Israel and therefore has, and continues to put forth unlimited effort to reach that stage, which sometimes succeeds and at other times fails. However, it seems that it is in a race against time because it believes that the circumstances in the West Bank are heading for an inevitable conflict, and Hamas is striving to spearhead this conflict against Israel in an attempt to re-establish the peak of its armed operations during the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada from 2001 to 2004.
Although this analysis discusses the pursuit of Hamas’s released prisoners in the West Bank, Gaza is also included in Israeli security measures, especially since dozens of the prisoners were exiled in Gaza, where Hamas exercises complete control and where its military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, seem to have full authority.
Therefore, Israel accuses them of having military training and preparing field plans to repeat the operation of capturing the soldier Gilad Shalit and sending them to the West Bank where it would be easier to hide a soldier in the mountains. This drove the Palestinian security agencies to announce that they had discovered a secret hiding place in Hebron as confirmation of the Israeli story regarding Hamas’s intentions to capture their soldiers.
Finally, Hamas’s announcement of its rejection of the Israeli accusations directed at its prisoners – considering them justifications to continue their pursuit despite the fact that no one doubts that the Shalit prisoner exchange deal whet the appetite of the movement to carry out future operations to capture soldiers and settlers – is what made Israel engage in a mind battle with the movement to stop it from executing this nightmare, even if it leads to re-arresting all the released prisoners… So who is winning?
The author is a Palestinian writer
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.