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Houthi prisoner exchange with Saudi: The difference between ‘seriousness’ and posturing

April 4, 2020 at 12:27 pm

Supporters of Houthis participate in march on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of Houthis control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 21 September 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

In a sudden initiative, Yemen’s Houthis have expressed their willingness to conclude a prisoner exchange deal with Saudi Arabia, whereby Saudi prisoners in Yemen will be released in exchange for the release of 60 of Hamas detainees in the kingdom.

The following lines discuss the impact of the Houthi intervention on the Hamas detainees in Saudi Arabia. Will Hamas’ relations with Saudi Arabia become more overwrought, because it will be revealed to be part of Iranian tools in the region? Did the Houthis announce their initiative unilaterally, or in coordination with Hamas? How did Hamas respond to it, and how will Saudi Arabia respond to this initiative?

In a remarkable step, the leader of the Houthis in Yemen, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, expressed his willingness to release five Saudis, including a pilot, in exchange for the release of Hamas prisoners detained in Saudi Arabia – by accomplishing the prisoner exchange process via which Riyadh releases Hamas detainees, while the Houthis release the Saudi prisoners. Al-Houthi accused Saudi Arabia of violating the rights of the Palestinians as they are being tried for supporting a “terrorist” organisation, namely the “Mujahideen” (militants).

Hamas waited several hours after the initiative to issue an official statement, hoping that Saudi Arabia would respond, especially in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the fact that many Hamas detainees are elderly, or of ill-health. Hamas expressed its support for any effort that might contribute to the release of the detainees. Hamas stressed that its detained cadres are innocent, as all they are guilty of was supporting the just national struggle.

Prior to the announcement of the Houthi initiative, member of the international relations bureau in Hamas, Basem Naim, affirmed that the movement is making direct contact through mediators with Saudi Arabia to release Palestinian detainees who were accused of supporting “terrorism”, expecting to close the file before the month of Ramadan, beginning in May.

Furthermore, Hamas welcomed this “individual” initiative: “We highly appreciate the sympathy and brotherly spirit with Palestinians and the support for their resilience and resistance. Thank you for this interest and this initiative.” Hamas confirmed that it has spared no effort to communicate with the Saudi leadership for nearly a year.

Read: Yemen’s Al-Houthi offers to exchange Saudi pilots for Hamas prisoners 

Similarly, Palestinian factions welcomed the Houthi initiative, conveying their appreciation in separate statements, expressing the depth of responsibility of the brotherly Yemeni people towards the Palestinian issue, calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately release all Palestinian detainees in its prisons.

The Houthi initiative was a big surprise to all parties, especially to Saudi Arabia and Hamas. Saudi Arabia did not want the issue of Hamas detainees to become material for media circulation, and an opportunity to embarrass them politically in the region, specifically amongst Arab public opinion. In fact, the kingdom has remained silent throughout the process.

The announcement of this initiative will also shed light, again, on the kingdom’s setback in the war in Yemen. At a time when the Houthis announced their offer to exchange the Hamas detainees with Saudi prisoners, Saudi cities were subjected to air strikes by the Houthis, which may make it difficult for the kingdom to respond to this Houthi initiative, especially at this critical stage.

As for Hamas, it has undertaken efforts with many Arab and regional parties to find a solution to this current crisis with Saudi Arabia. However, to date, all efforts have failed, given the Saudi intransigence and rejection of mediation made by Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait and Lebanon, and even by other countries, especially in light of the rapprochement which is underway between Hamas and Iran.

The movement’s responses have been progressive in order to face this problem, starting with mediation without resorting to the media, then issuing statements of caution. Then, a few days ago, Haniyeh asked the Saudi king to release the detainees to prevent their contamination by the coronavirus pandemic.

Even though the Houthi initiative towards Hamas detainees was apparently welcomed by Saudi Arabia, it “engages” Hamas into the crisis of polarisation between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. The movement has struggled to distance itself from the disastrous war in Yemen. But the initiative restores, intentionally or intentionally, the involvement of Hamas in this battle, without its consent and against its will.

As far as Palestinian public opinion is concerned, controversy emerged regarding the Houthi initiative. Some saw this as genuine Houthi support for the Palestinian cause and a step towards creating new alliances in the region. However, others believe that the aim of the proposal was to embellish the image of the Houthis before the Palestinians and the Arabs, knowing that the Houthis closed Hamas offices in the capital, Sana’a, and seized Palestinian associations and institutions, by arresting their employees.

Read: Hamas praises Houthis for offer to free Palestinian prisoners from Saudi Arabia

Therefore, the Houthi initiative appears as a simple step for political ends. It is intended to give the impression to the Yemenis and the Palestinians that they support the Palestinian cause, to push the fighters on the war fronts under the pretext of fighting Saudi Arabia.

As for the Saudi media, they took advantage of the initiative of the Houthis to accuse Hamas of “terrorism” in alliance with the Houthi militia, which is one of the “terrorist” weapons of Tehran, apart from the Iranian armed groups in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq.

The most appropriate argument is that Hamas did not know about the Houthi initiative. This was demonstrated by the statement of its leader, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, who claimed that the initiative was not made in coordination with the Houthis.

Notably, some views may consider the initiative as a source of embarrassment for Hamas, as it proves its involvement in the Iranian project to which the Houthis belong. However, before criticising Hamas for its Houthi favouritism, criticism should be directed to the parties forcing it to seek the help of Iran and its allies in the region.

Saudi Arabia is not expected to respond to the Houthi initiative, because this will show that it is subject to blackmail and is thus forced to implement the threats of its opponents who are fighting it in Yemen. This will also offend its image among Arab and Palestinian public opinion, and will expose it as a state that is arresting Palestinian militants, at a time when the kingdom is undergoing a serious decline in its public and media image.

Moreover, the Houthis may have actually succeeded if they offered their initiative to Saudi Arabia from behind the scenes, away from media circulation. This would have embarrassed both the kingdom and Hamas, and perhaps if the initiative reached Riyadh through the mediators, covertly, it might have dealt with it with some seriousness – which was not achieved.

Finally, the Houthi swap deal with Saudi Arabia established three convictions prevalent among the Palestinians. The first, is that the Houthi initiative is nothing more than propaganda, the second, is that Saudi Arabia will not respond to it, at least now, and the third, is that the initiative may harm the already tense relationship between Hamas and Saudi Arabia.

Read: Houthis ask Egypt to mediate for release of Hamas prisoners in Saudi Arabia

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