All Writings
December 21, 2009

A Larger Context for the Prisoner Exchange

This article is a departure from my 9/11: REPERCUSSIONS AND REALIGNMENT series,as I feel that the approaching prisoner exchange is an important topic to discuss at this time.  The 9/11 series will continue later this week.


The current debate among Israelis about a prisoner exchange with Hamas has been consumed by a narrow discussion of short-term gains and losses for both sides, evading the bigger picture of a future reconciliation between the two parties. It is time for both Israel and Hamas to recognize that there is no escape from one another. The deal that would presumably trade Gilad Shalit, Israel's soldier who was captured in 2006 by Hamas, for approximately 1,000 Palestinian prisoners should be utilized as a precursor for future negotiations between Israel and Hamas. The prisoner exchange offers an opportunity to enlarge the scope of the negotiations and put to end the long and mutually debilitating conflict from which neither side can benefit.

Most of the arguments in Israel against the release of Palestinian prisoners are valid to the extent that under such circumstances it is legitimate to argue, for example, that freeing nearly 1000 Palestinians for one Israeli soldier could encourage future seizures of Israelis. There is also an argument to be made that it would raise Hamas' fortunes and undermine the Palestinian Authority. Others, such as former director of the Prisoner of War department of the Mossad Rami Igra went as far as calling it "a shameless and bottomless surrender to Hamas' demands." Yet on the other side, there are those who argue that however illogical the exchange may appear, it is a highly emotional issue for most Israelis. Though the idea of a prisoner swap may be politically dangerous, the closeness and the nature of the Israeli society make it extremely difficult to differentiate between the personal and the political, especially when the captive is a soldier. Furthermore, those who favor the swap stress that Israel has several times in the past engaged in such lop-sided exchanges. In 1985, for example, Israel handed over 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israelis captured in Lebanon in 1982. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world that has a department within the foreign ministry dedicated to rescuing its citizens experiencing difficulties outside Israel.

The pros and cons of this debate however miss the overarching point: where do Israel and Hamas go from here once the prisoner exchange takes place? Gilad Shalit will return home and the whole country will cheer his heroism and Hamas will celebrate the release of 1,000 prisoners as a major victory. The violence in the past between the two sides, and especially Israel's incursion into Gaza in December 2008 must be instructive. It has demonstrated in no uncertain terms Hamas' futile efforts to use violence to intimidate or threaten Israel's existence. Moreover, considering Israel's awesome military prowess, Hamas will never be in a position to seriously challenge Israel in any future military confrontation.

Cast Lead also taught Hamas another bitter lesson. Not only that Egypt did not come to Hamas' aid, but it in fact joined Israel in imposing strict movement on its crossing to Gaza and prevented Hamas' militants from smuggling weapons and materials through the underground tunnels. No government in Egypt will allow an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood entity to rise in Gaza and be strong enough to subvert current or future Egyptian regimes. Hamas must eventually succumb to this reality and limit its political struggle internally. To be sure, Hamas must find a way not necessarily to join in a unity government with the PA, but to agree to an electoral political system that will democratically govern a future Palestinian state.

Conversely, Cast Lead has shown the Israelis that although they can march at will into Gaza with overwhelming military force and cause incalculable damage, Hamas is a grassroots movement and will survive even if its leadership is decapitated. In addition, however justified Israel felt its military intentions were in Gaza, the ensuing civilian death toll in any future conflict will always evoke international condemnation which Israel cannot afford to ignore. This is the reality that both sides must face and use the prisoner's exchange as a catalyst for changing the nature of their relationship.

Although Israel and Hamas are negotiating with each other indirectly, the negotiations constitute nothing less than recognition of each other's prerogatives, as no prisoners will be freed without a mutual consent. It is time for both sides to rid themselves of the illusion that somehow they can wish the other away. The prisoner exchange must immediately be followed by a sequence of concrete steps to solidify any good will engendered and narrow the wide gap between Hamas and the Israeli public. Prior among these must be a ceasefire agreement to stop all violence for at least five years. Ordinary Palestinians in Gaza have suffered far more than their share because of their misguided leadership. Polls in Gaza have clearly indicated that continued military resistance has actually undermined Hamas' popular support. Senior members of Hamas including Ismail Haniyeh have floated the idea of a long term ceasefire, if Israel is to make progress on a land-for-peace agreement based on June 4th, 1967 borders.

It is also of extreme importance at this point in time that Israel follow up with goodwill gestures, primarily opening up border crossings into Gaza. There is a humanitarian outcry that both Israel and especially Hamas must address. It is unconscionable and shameless on all parties, Palestinians, Israelis and the international community to allow this travesty to continue for another day. Easing the border crossings to allow goods and materials other than food and medicine-including building materials and machinery-must be given a top priority. This will also allow for an expanded trade between Israel and Gaza, as long as Hamas adheres to the ceasefire agreement. At the same time, Israel must also facilitate economic development in the West Bank, as a two state solution relies on the sustainability of both territories.

Should an exchange open up a working relationship between Israel and Hamas, albeit indirectly, Israel should also take advantage of any rift between the more hard-line conservative leadership in Damascus led by Khaled Meshal and Gaza's local leadership led by Ismail Haniyeh that has endured the violence and economic hardship first hand. Those in Hamas who wish to see the party serve as a full fledged political organization capable of representing the Palestinian people and delivering goods and services should be allowed to partake in the democratic process. Israel and the moderate Palestinians must be clear though that Qassam rockets or any form of violence that invites retaliatory attacks will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

For Israel, the prisoner swap must be seen as the first political step to achieve a mutual accommodation with a group which Netanyahu or any future Israeli leader must sooner or later make peace. For Hamas, this would be an historic opportunity to seize upon to become a part of state building and give the Palestinian community in Gaza, especially the young, a hope for a better tomorrow. Only in this context will the prisoner exchange make sense, as it opens up future possibilities to take constructive and viable measures on the ground to achieve a workable solution.