Shlomo Brom
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
October 24, 2011 - 12:00am

The exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, after years of campaigning and negotiating is a dramatic event that deeply affects Israeli public opinion and probably also Palestinian public opinion. Naturally, there is a tendency to look for broad and long-term implications of this recent development.

Some commentators look at the perceived negative implications of the deal and argue that it is going to encourage further attempts to kidnap Israelis. It convinces Palestinians that the release of thousands more of their countrymen who are still in Israeli prisons can be achieved only in this way rather than through political agreements with Israel. These commentators also argue that released Palestinian terrorists will return to terrorist activities and the risk to Israeli lives will increase. And they claim that the Hamas movement will be strengthened and Fateh weakened, thereby causing a change in the political balance of power in the West Bank and precipitating a takeover by Hamas and, accordingly, the end of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Others look at what are perceived as positive implications of this development and submit that it will change the atmosphere among the two publics and make them more forthcoming towards one another, thus facilitating the resumption of fruitful dialogue and negotiations. They suggest that the deal will normalize the relationship between Hamas and Israel, bringing about stabilization of the Israel-Gaza Strip border and possibly also continuation of a dialogue between the two.

A closer look at all these arguments leads to the conclusion that most probably the effects of this deal will be short-lived. In the longer term, the main developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the negotiations process will still be determined by the more basic parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

The notion that the kidnapping of Israelis is the best way to achieve the release of Palestinian prisoners is deeply rooted in the Palestinian psyche. But after so many prisoner exchanges, one more case does not generate real change. When, for five years, Israel refused the deal with Hamas, attempts to take additional Israeli hostages did not stop. Indeed, the delay only led to the conclusion that more hostages are needed. It would have required many more years of Israeli refusal to generate a new Palestinian awareness that hostages are not useful.

As to the contribution of the released prisoners to future terrorist acts, proponents and opponents of this argument each present their own different statistics regarding past releases and recidivism. But a pin-point analysis of this particular release and its circumstances in the Palestinian areas leads to the conclusion that the effect on terrorism will probably be very limited. A large proportion of the released prisoners returned to the Gaza Strip where they can have no effect on what is almost the only possible method of operating against Israel, namely use of rockets and mortars. And the prisoners returning to the West Bank will be relatively easy to monitor because of the improved capabilities of the Israeli and Palestinian Authority security services.

Past experience also shows that those who return to terrorist activity are mostly young prisoners sentenced to short terms in prison and released after their sentences expire. Israeli prisons only serve as a school for terrorism for this group. The more senior released prisoners who were the focus of public opposition to the deal in Israel because of their past atrocities usually rest on their laurels and enter political and public activity, capitalizing on their prestige within Palestinian society.

As for political implications, the prisoner release undoubtedly increases the prestige of Hamas, thus hurting Israel's negotiating partners. But this effect pales in the face of the complete stalemate in the negotiations process. If the Palestinians need proof that negotiations and dialogue with Israel get them nowhere, they already have ample evidence. Yet this has not changed the dominant view in Palestinian society that rejects resumption of violent resistance (the Hamas way).

There is no reason to believe that this episode of prisoner release will alter this strong trend, especially when Abu Mazen and Fateh have succeeded in crystallizing this majority among the Palestinian public by offering it a combination of working with the international community (the UN bid) and non-violent popular protest. Anyway, as long as the West Bank continues to be occupied by Israel there is no way Hamas can take over the Palestinian Authority, and it is very doubtful whether the Hamas figures released to the West Bank can reconstruct the shattered Hamas political and military infrastructure there.

The negotiations process is stalemated because of the domestic political situation on both sides and because the two parties that are supposed to negotiate have no trust in each other and do not believe that resumption of negotiations will lead to an agreement they can accept. The latest prisoner exchange deal did not change these basic parameters. On the contrary, in making this deal Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu increased Palestinian mistrust by completely ignoring the needs of his negotiating partner, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and refusing to release Fateh prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti.

Finally, the situation along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel is stable because of a combination of Israeli deterrence following the campaign of late 2008-early 2009 and the lifting of an important part of the siege of Gaza. Further modifications in the movement of goods and persons to and from Gaza will not make a real difference. Of course, there are no guarantees that this relative stability will last; more rounds of violence are possible. And neither the Israeli government nor Hamas is interested in formal political dialogue. Some informal track-two dialogues were possible before the prisoners' exchange, and are possible after it as well.-Published 24/10/2011 ©


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