Khalaf Ahmad al Habtoor
Gulf News (Opinion)
October 27, 2011 - 12:00am

I’ve lived long enough to know that not everything is as it seems at first glance. I’m sure that most Arabs view the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas as a good deal.

After all, who can complain about exchanging one skinny youth weighing around 45 kilogrammes for 1,020 Palestinian prisoners, including many who were serving life sentences? Sounds great until one analyses the motivations and ramifications.

While I fully understand the joy of Palestinian families welcoming home their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers or happy in the knowledge they are free, the bigger picture looks bleak.

Firstly, the swap represents an enormous public relations coup for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whose popularity within Israel and without has waned over the past year.

The Israeli newspapers have complained that the freed Israeli conscript Gilad Shalit was interviewed on Egyptian TV without commenting negatively about Netanyahu inviting Israel’s television cameras to broadcast his warm reception of the once unknown boy-turned international celebrity.

The Israeli media has also hammered home that while Shalit was handed over looking pale and malnourished, the Arab prisoners appeared healthy.

Not only does Shalit’s homecoming elevate Netanyahu’s re-election chances, it has also quelled internal protests against rising prices. More importantly, it has illustrated the value Israel puts on one of its own while giving the impression Arab lives are cheap.

I would echo the points made by Faisal Al Qasim in his column Israel’s Shalit eclipses Arab Shalloots. “Why has the whole world, including many Arab leaders, been so busy trying to free Shalit when there are tens of thousands of Arab ‘Shalloots’ languishing in Israeli and other prisons unnoticed? Why are they so cheap and unimportant?” he writes.

Al Qasim is also right to characterise this as “humiliating”. The fact that a number of the prisoners have been packed off to foreign countries rather than their homeland is yet a further humiliation — and at least two of the 27 female prisoners refused to cross from Egypt into Gaza saying they didn’t want to be imprisoned there.

Notable, too, is the high proportion of senior Hamas prisoners released compared to members of Fatah as well as the glaring absence of two politically influential Palestinians — presidential contender Marwan Barghouti, a man the Israeli writer Uri Avnery has called “Palestine’s Mandela” and Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Sa’adat, whose trial as blasted by Amnesty International as being unfair.

Hamas has stated any insistence their release would have scotched the deal but there’s little doubt that their continued imprisonment deprives Hamas of serious political competition.

Humiliation aside, the swap has undermined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to secure a prisoner exchange for five years, mainly due to the stubborn attitudes of Netanyahu and Hamas leader Esmail Haniyah. Hamas is now showering itself with glory for succeeding where Abbas failed and is basking in the glow of a rocketing domestic approval rating in Gaza and the West Bank.

Apparently, Netanyahu prefers to do business with his sworn Islamist enemies rather than the man he calls his peace partner. Of course, he knew fully well that Hamas would be greatly bolstered by the deal and that by agreeing to it, he was upping the potential for further abductions of Israeli soldiers to be used as pawns. Indeed, Gaza’s militant groups have openly stated their eagerness to grab more ‘Shalits’.

You might find Netanyahu’s thinking hard to fathom. But there’s a method in his madness. At a time when Israel is under heavy international pressure to return to the peace table and quit colony expansion, the more Palestinian enemies in positions of power Netanyahu can cite, the more his hand is strengthened.

And should Hamas win the next election, he can put peace on the backburner indefinitely on the basis that Hamas is a terrorist organisation without alienating the international community.

Just look at the timing. The Palestinian National Authority lodged its application for statehood recognition in the UN when world opinion towards Israel was at an unprecedented low and the Palestinians were at last being seen as the victims of occupation they are.

However, the sight of a traumatised Israeli resembling a concentration camp victim going home to his hilltop village when Hamas leaders are thumping their chests and lauding armed militancy may alter the equation.

Indeed, to imagine that Israel and Hamas have been in cahoots over this isn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination when one remembers that Hamas was partly a creation of the Israeli Mossad, formed to split and thus weaken the Palestinian people.

Zeev Sternal, a historian with the Hebrew University of Occupied Jerusalem once said, “Israel thought it was a smart ploy to push the Islamists against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation [PLO].” Pitting the PLO against Hamas was also a strategy of the Bush administration once they discovered their push for transparent and monitored elections boomeranged against Western interests.

Now Netanyahu is using the same tactic; except that as far as he’s concerned, his mild-mannered friend Abbas is, in fact, the worst enemy of Israeli expansionist plans. Israel cannot exist as an aggressive, militarised occupier without a visible enemy when officials can trumpet their worn out ‘poor little Israel’ pretexts.

Netanyahu must have shuddered when he saw the rousing welcome President Abbas received at the UN General Assembly, especially when his own speech elicited scant applause. One thing for sure, if one of Hamas’ political leaders — Haniyah or the organization’s head Khalid Mesha’al, based in Syria — both in the pocket of Tehran — were to stand before the UN General Assembly, the chamber would empty.

And so the power play continues. Hamas, its backer Iran and Israel, all of something in common — they don’t want peace. In movies the good guys usually win; I can only hope that the Palestinian people are wise enough to see through the tricks and back the right side.

Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.


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