x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Politics play a part in prisoner swaps

All the decision-makers in the recent Palestinian-Israeli prisoner swap were conscious of their own political interests.

Over the years Israel has made many prisoner exchanges with the Palestinians and the Lebanese. Each one involves a telling calculation of the relative value of the lives involved.

As we approach the December 19 deadline for Israel to release the remaining 550 or more Palestinians who are being traded for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, we are reminded again of this economy of human value.

Every time an Israeli, or any westerner for that matter, is held as a political prisoner in an Arab or Islamic country, the whole western world lines up in condemnation and protest, demanding his or her release; there are no protests on that scale when Palestinians are arrested. Even worse is the equating of a uniformed soldier with native Palestinians who are fighting the occupation and colonisation of their lands.

For the families concerned, these things do not of course matter very much, as all they wish for is to see their sons and daughters return safely to their homes and families. But in the current exchange between Hamas and Israel, hundreds of those being released by Israel will be deported from Palestine or released at location within Palestine far from where they live. Family reunification will not always be the end result for which many had hoped.

The deal for Shalit, a corporal when abducted, includes 1,027 convicted Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners, None of the top imprisoned political leaders, including Marwan Barghouti, will be released.

Israeli security officials have said that most of the details of the exchange were agreed upon at least a year ago, if not more. Why did both Hamas and the Israeli government take until October of this year to seal the agreement?

By their nature, governments, politicians and political parties often take certain actions for political reasons - local, regional, and/or global. This deal between Hamas and Israel is not an exception.

The pact was finally completed soon after Mahmoud Abbas took the Palestine issue to the United Nations, asking the UN Security Council to recognize Palestine as full UN member state. The deal also came few days after the eruption of large-scale demonstrations, in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners, all around Palestine, from Haifa to Nazareth to Ramallah.

These two issues must have been large factors in making both Hamas and Israel seal the deal at this moment. Mr Abbas, who leads Fatah, raised his profile among the Palestinian people by taking the Palestine question to the Security Council, challenging the United States and Israel, and particularly with his speech at the United Nations.

Of course his move produced nothing new from Israel and the US, which cling to their same old policies of dictation, arrogance, and colonization of lands and peoples.

What is significant is that Mr Abbas is about to end his career, and would surely prefer to end it with some dignified position, as if this would repair his reputation after the damage done to it in recent years.

This year's Arab Spring revolutions were also a factor. These changes of government increased the Palestinian public's unease with politics as usual; a movement calling for change was developing on the ground in the Palestinian territories.

Thus, by going ahead with the exchange Mr Abbas found a way to halt this development, that would have threatened the status quo.

The UN gambit also cornered the Israeli leadership, leaving it even less popular at home and abroad. Making the deal with Hamas now gives Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, a chance to kill two birds with one stone: His government is showing the Israeli public that it cares about its citizens, and is demonstrating to the international public that it is ready to negotiate and make deals.

Of course Israel can always arrest another 1,027 - or more - Palestinians after the releases. Indeed it has already been doing so, all around the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

The UN effort by Mr Abbas had taken some limelight away from Hamas, and the prisoner exchange is now allowing Hamas to score points both locally and regionally. The deal will also naturally weaken the popular movement in solidarity with the prisoners, a movement which as noted above was showing signs of developing into a new political force which could have threatened Hamas in Gaza just as it could have threatened Fatah in the West Bank.

Nothing in this analysis is meant to suggest that the parties and politicians involved are not concerned with their own people and cause. But at the same time we should not pretend that the politics of actions are unknown to politicians.

If real decolonisation of Palestine is the aim, however, real unity among the Palestinians is needed, and political point-scoring will have to be a lesser concern. Unity will be essential for the development of a popular movement to overthrow the racist colonial structure of Israeli settlements, and to reach the goal of not one Palestinian political prisoner remaining hostage in Israeli prisons.

Magid Shihade is an assistant professor of International Studies at Birzeit University, and the author of the recently published Not Just a Soccer Game: Colonialism and Conflict among Palestinians in Israel (published by Syracuse University Press)