The Guardian (Editorial)
October 13, 2011 - 12:00am

It is hard to read the prisoner swap agreement to free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in Gaza for five years, as anything less than a victory for his captors, Hamas. But it is a qualified one. Of the 1,027 prisoners Israel has agreed to release, 479 of the names have been nominated by Hamas (the rest will be chosen by Israel). Of the 479, 315 were serving life sentences for involvement in some of the bloodiest attacks on Israel, and most served over 20 years.

The qualification is that Hamas did not get everyone. Its top five names remain behind bars along with the Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, and Ahmed Saadat of the Popular Front. It has also agreed to allow 203 of the released prisoners to be deported – a major sticking point in the negotiations. But in terms of being able to extract Palestinians of all factions from Israeli jails, Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, said the deal was a national accomplishment, and most Palestinians, including Fatah, would agree with him.

Why have the two most implacable enemies in the conflict been able to reach a deal? It is best not to overinterpret it and, on past experience, some of the Palestinians to be released next week will either be back in prison or dead in a year's time. But the fact that the deal was signed now – it fell apart on two previous occasions – is, at least in part, down to the Arab spring. The growing ability of the Egyptian public to voice its feelings about Israel – and it was the Egyptian secret services that hosted the talks – was acknowledged by the Israeli premier, Binyamin Netanyahu. He implied that if they had waited any longer they might not have been able to reach a deal at all.

As his cabinet met to approve the prisoner exchange, Israel issued a formal apology to the Egyptian government for shooting dead five Egyptian policemen after the Eilat attacks in August. If this is being more pragmatic and acknowledging that Israel's isolation has been deepened by its refusal to issue a similar apology to Turkey for the deaths of its citizens at the hands of Israeli soldiers, then it is a step in the right direction. Israel can not reshape its environment, but does have to live in it.

Hamas, too, has its fair share of problems from the Arab spring. Its refusal to take sides in the Syrian uprising has earned it the fury of Bashar Assad and the Iranians. This has brought forward the date when it might be forced to move its external headquarters from Damascus. This deal restores Hamas's fortunes, but the larger issues remain unaddressed. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has launched his bid for statehood at the UN, but there is no prospect of achieving it on the ground, and little political will on either side to negotiate it.


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