x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Palestinian prisoners could lead a peaceful resistance

The prisoner deal can be seen as new phase in relations in Palestinian-Israeli relations. In the past, freed prisoners often turned to armed resistance, but there is a better choice.

The prisoner deal between Hamas and the state of Israel can be seen in the context of a new phase in the conflict - reflecting a new way of thinking among Palestinians, which is partly connected to the wider changes in the region after the so-called Arab Spring. Whether this leads to a policy of civilian resistance, or a renewed call for armed struggle, depends on Israel's actions and the Palestinians themselves.

The deal brings to mind similar agreements made between Israel and the Palestinians, namely two exchanges in the 1980s. In 1983, an agreement was reached between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, in which 4,600 Palestinian and other Arab prisoners were released in exchange for six Israeli soldiers captured during the war in Lebanon.

And in 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for two soldiers who were taken hostage inside Lebanon. This second deal is known as the "Jibril Deal", referring to Ahmad Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a small faction close to Syria.

Although it involved more prisoners, the 1983 deal was not as memorable because Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners had been captured mainly during the 1982 Israel invasion of Lebanon. They had not been in prison for a long time, few had major roles in the war or resistance and they had been imprisoned in Lebanon.

In the second deal, the Palestinians and Arabs who were released were actual field leaders and activists in the Palestinian Territory, many of whom were serving life sentences. It is believed that the released prisoners helped to drive the first Intifada in 1987. For example, one of the released prisoners, Ahmad Yasin, established Hamas at about the same time.

Another example is Jihad Al Amarin, a man whose role was not well known until recently. As part of the 1985 deal, he was deported to Switzerland, but soon returned to the region, began to reactivate armed resistance within the Palestinian Territory and, in 2000, founded Al Aqsa Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement in the second Intifada.

The Gilad Shalit deal is the first to involve an Israeli soldier taken hostage on Israeli or Palestinian soil. This is one indication that the Palestinian political movement is concentrating efforts inside the territory more than in the past.

The 1,027 released Palestinian prisoners in this case could play an active role in shaping society, not only as individuals but also because of the political movement within the prisons. In 2006, while polarisation worsened between Fatah and Hamas, the prisoners surprised their leaders on the outside with a manifesto that became known as "the Prisoners' Document".

The document outlined rules for reconciliation between Palestinians and, perhaps more importantly, it also implied a view towards a political settlement with Israel.

It was a remarkable political moment as leaders from Hamas supported negotiations with Israel.

More recently, reconciliation took a step forward when Mahmoud Abbas delivered his speech on statehood to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23. Hamas criticised Mr Abbas's move at the UN, but its disapproval could be described as soft compared to the previous exchanges of insults between the two parties.

Indeed, some senior figures close to Hamas in the West Bank expressed enthusiastic support. Among them was Nasir Al Din Shaer, a Hamas member and former deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, who described the speech as "historic and strong". Later, he and a delegation close to Hamas visited Mr Abbas as a gesture of support.

After news spread about this prisoner deal, celebration again demonstrated a sense of unity among Palestinians. In a rare scene, the flags of Hamas and Fatah were carried in the same rally at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

Hamas sources had said that their leader Khalid Meshaal was expected to meet Mr Abbas after the prisoner release that began yesterday. All of these developments demonstrate what could be a new strategy fostered through the prisoner deal.

In the past few years, Palestinian prisoners have supported a unified political movement, while leaders on the outside have been driven farther apart. The prisoner movement has expressed moderate views and a vision of resistance that includes civilian protest in parallel with negotiations.

And behind closed doors, Hamas political leaders have shown new tactics by leading the Gaza truce with Israel and showing relative support for a two-state solution. The unity shown after Mr Abbas's UN speech, and now the prisoner deal, suggest the possibility of a new political movement that merges diplomacy and resistance.

Many Palestinians recognise, however, that without the military operation that led to the capture of Shalit, this release would not have been possible. Peace negotiations have not led to any tangible results in terms of freeing prisoners. Moreover, the political role and popularity of Hamas's armed wing could gain momentum. Ahmad Al Jabari, who is credited with leading Hamas's negotiations, is considered a hardline figure advocating armed struggle against Israel and opposing reconciliation with Fatah.

The new Palestinian movement will depend largely on civilian resistance and continued pressure to bring Palestinian issues to the international community, and beyond US control. At the same time, however, hardliners will claim that, in light of this recent deal, only armed resistance will be effective.

Claims that favour armed resistance over popular resistance and diplomacy will gain momentum if major leaders remain in prison, if the building of illegal settlements on confiscated Palestinian land continues, and if no tangible steps are taken to end the occupation.


Ahmad Jamil Azem is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge's faculty of Asian and Middle East studies