x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Prisoner release will be judged in the coming days

The prisoner exchange marks a victory, but following it with a renewal of peaceful resistance is equally important.

Every side will take its own lesson from yesterday's events. The scenes of joyous crowds receiving the first several hundred Palestinian prisoners could be seen as an historic victory, for which Hamas will certainly claim credit. Some will see it as a vindication of hostage-taking and the armed struggle; others will champion a return to the negotiating table.

Regardless of the point of view, it is a victory in one sense. Among the 477 prisoners released yesterday, there were many who had been jailed for decades, some on trumped-up charges. And, it must be said, yet others are prominent figures in the armed resistance whose release marks a change in Israeli policy.

Just by itself, negotiation - between the most rejectionist Israeli administration in decades and Hamas leaders who officially do not recognise Israel - was a departure for both sides. It is worth repeating that one negotiates with enemies, not with friends.

Can that breakthrough lead to substantive negotiations on other issues? The Netanyahu administration's abysmal record dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which has been more accommodating than Hamas, argues for pessimism. The prisoner swap prevailed at this time because both Hamas and the Netanyahu administration sought to shore up their domestic support; too often both of these parties seem unable to realise that a lasting, just compromise on peace is a strong mutual interest.

The danger is that the deal vindicates Hamas's hostage taking. Armed resistance has proven to be a self-defeating strategy time and time again. A return to violence would weaken the Palestinian Authority's bid for UN recognition of statehood and the international momentum towards pressuring Israel as it continues to build settlements in occupied territory.

This is another area where the release of the prisoners is so important. Many were accused of armed resistance, even terrorist attacks against civilians. But the Palestinian prisoner movement has since shown a political maturity sometimes lacking elsewhere, calling for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, peaceful resistance and negotiation with Israel.

Even free of Israel's prisons, these men and women still live under its rules, with many facing exile and a ban from returning to their homes in the West Bank. Many will probably return to resistance and - as past releases have shown - some will take up an armed struggle. That would be playing into the Netanyahu administration's hands. Palestinians urgently need leaders in a peaceful struggle, leaders that these former prisoners could prove to be.