Without doubt, the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel is a huge achievement for the Palestinians. Ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in 2006 that he would not give in to Hamas and would not release any Palestinian prisoners. The entire population of Gaza was then besieged by Israel in its efforts to find and free their soldier held captive in Gaza, Gilad Shalit; Israel wasn’t prepared to give anything in return for their man. During the siege, of course, Israel bombed and invaded Gaza, killing 1,400 Palestinian civilians, one-third of them children. They could still not find and free Shalit. His freedom came when the deal suited the Palestinians and the Israeli government caved in to their demands.
All the while that Shalit was in captivity, Gaza became politically stable, resisted Israel’s political and military pressure and withstood the siege. Israeli intelligence was given no room to manoeuvre in its quest to locate the soldier.
Hence, while Israel didn’t get Shalit free of charge, it did succeed on getting the whole Gaza Strip to pay the price. The inhumane blockade was endured in order to gain freedom for the Palestinian prisoners released as part of the exchange deal. It was besieged Gaza which liberated our prisoners, not the largesse of the Israeli government.
That such a deal could be negotiated while Gaza remains under siege illustrates how important the prisoner issue is to the people of Palestine. The national struggle is incomplete if the issues of our prisoners, Jerusalem and refugees do not form the core.
This was confirmed by our people everywhere in historic Palestine; the solidarity of our youth in Israel with the detainees’ hunger strike was unprecedented. The strike showed that the prison walls do not imprison the will of the prisoners. The youths’ solidarity with the detainees also sent the message that prison walls do not detach prisoners from their community. It also gave the young people inside Israel in places like Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Haifa evidence that the struggles of the Palestinian people are indivisible in their many forms, and that there is no meaning to “being part of the Palestinian people” if we are not part of the collective struggles and sacrifices.
However, within that context, although Hamas has said that it will not abandon those prisoners held by Israel who are Israeli citizens, the female detainees or any of the leaders, we were surprised, even shocked, when we knew that only five prisoners out of more than 160 from the 1948-occupied territories were freed. And that Ahmed Saadat and Marwan Barghouti were not part of the deal, and nor were the women prisoners from the 1948 territories: Worood, Khadija and Lina are still behind bars even though the information released claimed that all women prisoners would be set free.
It is not clear how or why Hamas appears to have given up on most of the detainees from the 1948-occupied territories and how or why it gave up on the leaders of other factions. This is at least one question for which Hamas is still to provide an answer to the people of Palestine.
Nevertheless, the solidarity with the prisoners across Palestine and the deal itself has ushered in a new stage of our struggle. This highlights the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, the relationship between the two main factions, Fatah and Hamas, and the status of the detainees’ issue in our national agenda.
Not unnaturally, there has been talk of Hamas scoring points against Fatah in the power struggle between the main factions. Palestinians must beware of turning the national struggle into a political football. While the people will reward those who bring about political change, they will also push for greater struggle and concern for the national interest.
The exchange agreement gives the Palestinian Authority a tricky task in maintaining the deal as a national achievement. This can be done by limiting or stopping security coordination with the Israelis, which will make it harder for them to arrest Palestinian activists; it simply makes no sense to celebrate the release of prisoners on one hand while helping Israel to round more up on the other. We must build on the momentum provided by the prisoner exchange deal on both sides of the Green Line, and return the issue of Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails to the core of the political struggle.
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