The National (Editorial)
October 14, 2011 - 12:00am

The prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel, which should see the release of 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, has been hailed as a victory for both sides. It should not, however, be confused with a major political breakthrough.

The Netanyahu administration had clear, self-serving political reasons to strike this deal, as did Hamas. The Palestinian Authority's application for UN recognition of the state of Palestine put pressure on both. The Israeli government needs to shore up domestic support, while Hamas wants to re-establish its standing among Palestinians.

But realpolitik is no reason to despair. The prisoner release is also an opportunity, not least because those who are released should bring more attention to about 5,000 men and women who still languish in jail - some for violent crimes, but many on spurious charges.

In these pages, we have argued repeatedly that the Palestinian cause is strongest through peaceful resistance and appeals to international opinion. That conclusion was brought home on Wednesday night by the veteran diplomat Afif Safieh, the former Palestinian ambassador to Washington, London and Moscow, speaking at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. Mr Safieh urged Hamas to renounce violent resistance and instead unite with the Palestinian Authority in its UN bid.

"On the military field is where we are at our weakest," Mr Safieh said. That is not defeatism, he added, it is a recognition that Palestinians' strengths lie elsewhere. "Don't confuse realism with resignation."

Those strengths, however, mean little if the Palestinian leadership remains as riven as it has been since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. The Palestinian bid at the United Nations, the bargaining position with the Israelis and Americans and, most importantly, the cohesiveness of Palestinian society have all suffered. Reconciliation, as Mr Safieh rightly pointed out, has to be the first priority and it has to be founded on the premise of non-violent resistance.

The Palestinian cause is consistently undermined by the argument that Hamas will never give up violence - Israel's hawks rely on that excuse for their own belligerence. It is time to prove them wrong. "Hamas is not monolithic as many people assume: it has pragmatic and democratic elements just as it does religious," Mr Safieh said, a significant statement from a senior member of Fatah. Both sides have a responsibility to find that pragmatic common ground.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017