Marwan Kabalan
Gulf News
February 27, 2009 - 1:00am

When the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, captured the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006, the incident was described by some Western analysts as reckless behaviour.

The argument was that the kidnapping would not help to alleviate the four decades of suffering of occupied Palestinians. On the contrary, it would make their lives more difficult.

That was exactly what happened. Israel exploited Shalit's case right away and destroyed the already poor infrastructure in Gaza. The main power station was put out of service, key bridges were turned into rubble, the Strip was isolated from the rest of the world, and water and food supplies were allowed in only in small quantities.

The argument of the Western analysts was thus found to be correct. Yet, it is also true that the life of Palestinians had been anything but easy before the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier. Even when Hamas was moving closer towards accepting the conditions of the UN, the EU, Russia and the US, Israel had never stopped killing Palestinians. Furthermore, the kidnapping of Shalit had nothing to do with the recent attack on Gaza, in which Israel wreaked havoc across the Strip.

It seems also that Israeli officials have forgotten that Hamas owes its rising popularity to the aggressor's awkward policies. Almost two decades of painful negotiations - since the Madrid peace conference in 1991 - have yielded absolutely nothing. Israel made partial withdrawals from parts of the West Bank in the 1990s, only to re-occupy the land in April 2002. Promises about freeing thousands of Palestinian prisoners - some of whom have spent decades in Israeli jails - never materialised.

For most Palestinians, begging and pleading was no longer an option. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005 was a case in point. Palestinians have turned Gaza from an asset into a liability for the Israeli occupation.

Indeed, the Lebanese Hezbollah has provided an example to follow for Palestinians and others around the world. Hezbollah humiliated the invincible Israeli army and embarrassed the Arab world, which for half a century failed in defending Arab lands and Arab dignity. For the first time in the region's history, Israel was forced to withdraw from an Arab land without a schedule, without negotiations and above all without humiliating provisions.

Furthermore, in 2001 and in a successful intelligence operation, Hezbollah kidnapped a former Israeli officer. After two years of tough negotiations, mediated by Germany, Israel and Hezbollah reached an agreement. Hundreds of Lebanese and Arab prisoners were freed from Israeli jails.

The prisoners exchange agreement was hailed in the Arab world as a great victory for the Islamic resistance.

In July 2006, Hezbollah did it again when it captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. In retaliation, Israel declared war on Lebanon but failed to free its soldiers or to break the backbone of Hezbollah. Eventually, Israel agreed to a prisoner swap.

Hamas must have understood the lesson fairly well and after being stretched to breaking point, it had no option but to adopt Hezbollah's strategy. Since it came to power, Israel has been trying to undermine the Hamas government and punish the very people who elected it. Total isolation, daily bombardment, cutting off aid and accusing the new Palestinian government of terrorism were among the policies Israel adopted to oust Hamas.

Fearing massive Israeli retaliation along with huge domestic challenges, Hamas initially decided not to respond. When Hamas' response eventually came, it sounded like a slap in the face for the Israeli military. Israel was in fact waiting for an opportunity to destroy the Hamas government, prove its helplessness and tarnish its image.

When the truce in Gaza came to an end last December, Israel grabbed the opportunity and exploited it to the maximum. It didn't look like Israel was trying to free a soldier. In fact, Israel was trying to achieve a goal set long ago: to destroy Hamas at the most suitable occasion. That occasion seemed to have come and Israel was in no mood to let it go. The war on Gaza ended without the soldier being freed. Eventually, Israel was forced to negotiate a prisoner swap with Hamas.

Negotiations hit a snag last week, however, when Israel said that it would not accept a long-term truce in Gaza that did not include the release of Shalit. Israel is wary that if Hamas succeeds in getting anything in exchange for the soldier, it would set a precedent and change the rules of the game. Hamas' accomplishment would also be hailed as a victory in Palestine and across the Arab world. Israel is intent on not giving Hamas such a victory and seems willing to use all the power that it has to prevent that.

Hamas must act wisely to ensure that the cost of these negotiations does not outweigh the benefit.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in Media and International Relations at Damascus University's Faculty of Political Science and Media.


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