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Negotiating with the enemy: Hamas and Israeli prisoner exchange talks

Placed at the Al-Saraya junction in Gaza, a billboard shows Shaul Arun, an Israeli solider, standing with jail bars around him [Mohammed Asad/Apaimages]
Placed at the Al-Saraya junction in Gaza, a billboard shows Oron Shaul, an Israeli solider, standing with jail bars around him [Mohammed Asad/Apaimages]

Israeli officials are quietly confirming that “significant” talks are underway with Hamas to strike a prisoner swap deal to return a number of Israeli soldiers held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Last month, Ismail Haniyeh, chief of Hamas’ political bureau, announced in a television interview with the London-based Al-Araby TV network: “We have four prisoners and we are ready for indirect talks.” There are two pivotal questions: why doesn’t Hamas negotiate directly with Israel? Will such a deal materialise?

Diverse perceptions of negotiation

Palestinian factions have held miscellaneous views and assessments of peace talks and negotiations with Israel. To understand the divergent standpoints of the advocates of the Palestinian cause, an awareness of their motives and goals is necessary. For some Palestinian factions, the crux of the matter of conflict goes back to 1948 with the foundation of the state of Israel, while for others, the conflict started in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

For years, Hamas adopted the maximalist view of the annihilation of Israel. This stance was staunchly stipulated in Hamas’ charter and literature. It believed that regaining the Palestinian usurped land depends primarily on military resistance and the utter reluctance of Israel’s right to exist, as an occupying power, on the Palestinian historical land.

Almagor: Families of Israelis killed by Palestinians do not want prisoner swap

However, there has been another camp headed by former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) who believed negotiation is an indispensable means to realise the Palestinian rights. This camp strived for years to negotiate and seek a two-state solution. The Oslo Accords in 1993 established the recognition of this acknowledgement by the Palestinian leadership at the time, of the state of Israel’s right to exist in return for the withdrawal of the occupying forces from the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas reserved its chair on the Palestinian political table by a shock win in the election over the once-dominant Fatah party. Immediately, the international community asked the Hamas movement to accept and respect the quartet requirements, including the recognition of all prior peace deals signed between the PLO and Israel. Apparently, Hamas hasn’t succumbed to the quartet’s dictations, and as a result, it was boycotted and alienated along with the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit salutes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after landing in an Israeli army air base. Shalit was released on October 18 2011 after being held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years in the occupied Gaza Strip [IDF Online]

Freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit salutes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after landing in an Israeli army air base. Shalit was released on October 18 2011 after being held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years in the occupied Gaza Strip [IDF Online]

Barriers of direct negotiation

For years, Hamas has been utterly reluctant to negotiate directly with Israel. Some might wonder, if the Afghani Taliban movement accepted to negotiation with the US administration, why doesn’t Hamas accept talks with Israel? There are countless motives that urge Hamas to directly negotiate with Israel.

The most prominent reason is the lack of a decent impartial mediator that liaise between the two parties. The US administration has demonstrated its unequivocal backing to Israel, implicitly and explicitly. Even the Egyptian role, which is supposed to be more in favour of Hamas, since it’s a neighbouring Arab and Muslim country, has been practicing more pressure on the Palestinian movement to force it to accept unfair negotiating terms.

In principle, direct negotiation with the occupation means recognition of its existence. Hamas leadership reiterates that Israel is an occupying power that doesn’t have the right to exist on the Palestinian territories. Thus, it doesn’t recognise it as an eligible negotiation partner. However, in 2017, Hamas unveiled a new political programme softening its stance by accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Yet, there are no signs that Hamas might accept direct negotiations with Israel in the foreseeable future.

The track records of the notorious peace process and negotiation talks between the PLO and Israel show that Israel takes, and doesn’t give back. It secured all its conditions and criminalised any Palestinian resistance. At the same time, it scorned and violated all international resolutions and continued to annex and confiscate lands. As an apartheid rogue state, it continues in its expansionist occupying policies without defining its borders.

Coercive talks

In the Israeli prisons, there are nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners including 41 women, 180 children and 430 administrative detainees, who are being held without trial. Amid the ongoing crisis of the outbreak of the coronavirus, Hamas delivered a list of 250 Palestinian prisoners questing their release from Israeli jails, and has offered to provide information regarding Israeli soldiers held in the Gaza Strip.

Last week, the Israel Broadcasting Corporation alluded that the caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will start indirect negotiations with Hamas in an attempt to strike a deal to return the missing Israeli soldiers. Husam Badran, the international spokesperson for Hamas abroad, announced his movement is seeking “a more substantial accomplishment”.

READ: Humanitarian concerns could swing it for a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel 

Israel and Hamas have experienced indirect negotiations in the 2011 prisoner exchange, in which Hamas released the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for 1,027 prisoners, mainly Palestinians. Prior to that, there has been a couple of direct talks between Israel and the Hamas leadership; one was the meeting between Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a co-founder of the Hamas movement and Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, in the eighties. Al-Zahar was forced to attend the meeting, in which he was asked about a possible solution in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel has negotiated the Palestinians for decades. As a negotiation partner, it has proven to be tremendously manipulative on a grand scale. Negotiation has successfully materialised when the Palestinian partner has strength cards in hand. Otherwise, a two-state solution promise turned out merely to be a rhetorical cliché – a pipe dream that vanished overnight – and a Jewish nation state was announced. Most advocates of the Palestinian cause realise that serious negotiation necessitates a reliable partner or a genuinely impartial mediator, and both are currently absent.

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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