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Hamas, Israel and a new prisoner exchange deal

Palestinians demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, stage a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Eastern Jerusalem on March 26, 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, stage a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Eastern Jerusalem on March 26, 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]

There has been more talk recently of the possibility of a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel following the return of an Israeli soldier’s body from Syria and the Islamic movement’s announcement of receiving European offers to move forward with such an agreement. Hamas has also threatened to capture more soldiers to prompt a new prisoner exchange, while the family of an Israeli soldier captured in Gaza accused the Israeli government of letting them down and leaving its son with Hamas. The family of Hadar Goldin, an Israeli officer captured by Hamas, attacked the authorities for abandoning him after sending him to fight in the Gaza Strip, and for abandoning its moral duty which stipulates that no soldier is left behind on the battlefield.

What offers have been made to Hamas regarding a deal, and is the movement serious about its threat to capture more soldiers? Are Israeli prisoners a burden on Hamas and will Israel’s release of Syrian prisoners in exchange for the soldier’s body mean that the state has backed down from its strict rule of a body for a body?

Musa Dodin is the head of prisoner affairs at the Hamas political bureau. He revealed that the European offer to advance a prisoner exchange deal with Israel includes providing information about Israeli soldiers in exchange for the occupation authorities releasing the bodies of martyrs killed during the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza. However, Hamas has rejected the offer and stressed that those who want information about Israeli prisoners should first release Palestinian prisoners.

Meanwhile, senior Hamas official Fathi Hammad said that the movement is preparing for what it described as a victory in a new deal. “If the Israeli government is not satisfied with our prisoners,” he added, “then the door is open to capture more soldiers in order to convince the Israelis to sign a new deal.”

READ: Israelis living near Gaza angry about ceasefire

While all this talk of a new prisoner exchange deal is ongoing, there has been an increase in the sanctions imposed by the Israeli authorities on Palestinian detainees. This also happened during previous talks about such deals in order to put pressure on the prisoners and the Hamas leadership to lower their demands and release Israeli soldiers.

However, Israel’s recovery of the body of Zechariah Baumel in exchange for the release of two Syrian prisoners a few weeks ago has created an important precedent which may encourage the Israelis and Hamas to agree a deal. International delegations have gone between Tel Aviv and Gaza since 2014 to discuss a swap, but have come to a dead end in the face of Israel’s demand to exchange a body for a body and the living for the living. The deal with the Syrians smashed that principle,

The prisoners held by Hamas represent a weak spot for Israel. The movement has realised that it can more or less get what it wants from Israel through its prisoners and missing soldiers, given the political and strategic considerations in Tel Aviv. Moreover, Hamas knows that popular pressure on Israeli governments regarding prisoners and soldiers missing in action can have positive results by influencing those making the decisions.

Hamas is unlikely to back down on its demand for the release of its members held by Israel, including the leaders responsible for carrying out resistance operations. Israel’s reluctance to agree an exchange, meanwhile, will suggest that it disregards the importance of its soldiers in captivity. Moreover, this encourages organisations to carry out more operations to capture Israeli soldiers and thus the government’s position puts the lives of its soldiers at risk.

READ: Israeli forces murder Palestinian after refusing political detention

In Israeli political circles it is felt that any future exchange deal is an achievement for Hamas and will fuel its appetite to capture more soldiers. Israel’s acceptance of its terms is only a matter of time because its deterrence efforts have failed. Now Hamas can raise its head amongst the Palestinians after showing that the movement’s way is the best in such matters.

Following last month’s General Election in Israel, the far-right make-up of the new coalition leads me to conclude that that it is unwilling to agree a new prisoner swap with Hamas. The further right that the parties are, then the more likely they are to reject any deal.

However, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can reach agreement with Hamas it will be a popular move with the public because returning Israeli soldiers to their families is a regular demand. The big question will be who gets released in exchange, and how many Palestinian prisoners will be involved. What’s more, the Israeli public will want to know the prisoners’ rankings within the structure of the armed groups.

It must be remembered that Israel has deliberately exhausted the Palestinians in Gaza over the past few years in order to force Hamas to agree to a “modest” deal after Israel failed to gain any intelligence information leading them to the location of their soldiers held in the heart of the enclave.

READ: Why Palestinian prisoners choose hunger strike as a resistance strategy

The truth is that despite all of these indicators, though, there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that would encourage either side to agree a new exchange deal; Hamas is still committed to its condition that no negotiations will be held until the prisoners released in the previous deal who were re-arrested by Israel in the West Bank are released yet again. While Israel continues to launch arrest campaigns on a daily basis in the West Bank, it is not willing to release senior Hamas members, as this not only portrays it as giving in to Hamas’s demands but also contradicts its attacks on the group’s infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In addition, any progress towards a prisoner swap and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is hindered because it does not serve Netanyahu’s interests. Such a mass release gives his political opponents an advantage because he has to explain why so many of those released previously have, according to security reports, taken part in further resistance activities.

Despite the serious desire for a new deal, it is unlikely to happen because conditions are not right. Public pressure in Israel for the government to reach an agreement has not built up to the same extent that we saw in the case of Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas for more than five years before his release in October 2011. The right-wingers in the Israeli government are not concerned about accusations of ignoring soldiers’ families and damaging the country’s strategic interests. They simply refuse to give Hamas any prizes at this critical and sensitive time. The leaks about an imminent prisoner exchange deal are nothing more than crisis management; they are not a way out of the impasse.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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