Taufiq Rahim
The National (Opinion)
October 13, 2011 - 12:00am

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York last month, he demanded the release of about 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At the time he was riding a wave of momentum due to the bid for recognition of a Palestinian state at the world body.

Nearly three weeks later, little progress has been made towards what had been only a symbolic goal. Meanwhile, Hamas – the political rival of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party – has achieved a tremendous coup: the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the return of the captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Just when it seemed that Hamas had been losing ground on the Palestinian political scene to Fatah, it has returned to the forefront in a move that could dramatically affect its political fortunes.

It was always unclear how the Arab awakening would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would there be a mass movement of Palestinians advocating change? Against what forces would it be directed? Would it turn violent?

Mass protests in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip exerted pressure for a unity government between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and Hamas. That led to what should have been a ground-breaking agreement in Cairo in May. But “reconciliation” has yet to be implemented in anything but name.

As a result, Hamas has continued to be excluded from the internationally recognised leadership of key Palestinian political bodies such as the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Furthermore, with the growing turmoil engulfing Syria, the base of Hamas’s political leader Khaled Meshaal, the party appeared to be pushed even further to the margins.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank there has been increasing praise and support for the economic development plan captained by Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a favourite of donors to the Palestinian Authority, and who is viewed derisively Hamas. More recently, the decisive move by Mr Abbas to seek recognition of the state of Palestine at the UN ,with or without Israel’s permission, generated new enthusiasm. Hamas did not have much to offer except for expressions of doubt and hollow claims that its approach would lead to real results on the ground.

When the news was confirmed yesterday that a deal had been reached between Hamas and Israel to exchange Sergeant Shalit for over 1,000 prisoners, it was a dramatic boost for the party’s flagging image. Hamas will receive direct credit for the release of an estimated one-sixth of the Palestinian prison population in Israeli jails. In contrast, Mr Abbas and Fatah, despite all the years of negotiations and security coordination with Israel, cannot point to a comparable achievement.

It is also significant that the deal was mediated by the new government in Cairo. Mr Meshaal made a point of thanking Egypt and Qatar for their role in brokering the deal, demonstrating its focus on developing support beyond Damascus.

The exact list of prisoners who will be released will not be revealed until 48 hours before the initial exchange and it is likely not to include such heavyweights as Hamas militant Abdullah Barghouti, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Saadat, or the widely popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. Yet, there are a significant number of key Hamas militants and activists who will be released, which will bolster the ranks of its current leadership. Moreover, it is expected that many of the Palestinians who are set free will be from other political factions, further enhancing the political goodwill that Hamas will garner with the deal.

It is expected that Palestinians will finally hold presidential and legislative elections in 2012 – although this could of course change. If elections are held, Hamas will now have a very strong narrative to put forward. Not only will it claim that it is governing in the Gaza Strip and has achieved a significant milestone with the prisoner exchange, but it will also be able to demonstrate an improved relationship with Egypt.

Thus, in the year of the Arab awakening, while it seemed initially that Hamas was caught off-guard, it has since adapted to the new conditions in the region and found away to seize the initiative from its rival Fatah.

Certainly developments in the West Bank and Gaza in coming weeks will be very fluid. More importantly, depending on the outcome of the UN vote and subsequent actions on the ground in Palestinian cities, the situation could change dramatically. It is hard, however, to see how other political factions will be able to demonstrate that they are working towards ending the Israeli occupation.

Perhaps – and it remains to be seen – we will see a new guard of Palestinians in Fatah and beyond emerge to consolidate a non-violent, but anti-occupation political movement. Unless this happens, expect Hamas to exert rising influence on the Palestinian political scene for the foreseeable future.


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