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Middle east

The winners and losers in Gilad Shalit's release

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2011-10-19

The release of 1,047 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier has important implications for Israel and Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, as well as the Egyptian military government that brokered the deal.

Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip, has undoubtedly been strengthened by the deal with Israel that saw 447 (of an eventual 1,047) Palestinians released in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom.

Sgt. Shalit was captured by Hamas fighters and taken to the Gaza Strip five years ago. Since then, Israel has launched two military incursions into the enclave, while previous attempts to negotiate a prisoner swap have ended in failure.

Controversially, the deal reached this week includes the release of many Palestinians serving life sentences for the killing of Israeli citizens.

Fatah still in the game

Hamas’s supreme leader Khaled Mashaal on Tuesday portrayed the swap as an unequivocal victory, telling reporters that Israel had been “forced to pay the price.”

On Tuesday, Mashaal said from Cairo that the swap had created a good atmosphere for reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions. Officials at the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is dominated by rival faction Fatah, said a meeting between the two sides could take place “in the coming days”.

On the face of it, Fatah’s exclusion from negotiations may have taken some political wind from its sails.

Abbas last month rode a wave of international and domestic support on the back of his UN statehood bid. The group has gained international approval by working hard to improve life for ordinary Palestinians, according the FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Annette Young.

But a popular victory for Hamas – a huge number of Palestinian families have relatives in Israeli jails – is still not an outright defeat for Fatah.

“Abbas’s UN bid was in many ways a circuit breaker for the negotiations to release Shalit,” Young said. “It brought huge international attention to the Palestinian issue and probably expedited the prisoner swap, because from Hamas’s view, Fatah was dominating the international spotlight.”

She added: “Even if Hamas has scored a number of points, it’s not going to take away from Fatah’s achievements. But it does change the dynamic between the two sides when they sit down to renewed talks. Hamas will have extra leverage.”

Relief and consternation in Israel

The deal that secured Shalit's release enjoyed overwhelming public support in Israel (79% in favour). It will be a significant political boon for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But there were also loud voices of dissent among those who felt too much was given away in return for one man’s freedom.

Some families of victims of the released prisoners appealed against the decision to go ahead with the swap, while prominent members of the government, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, last week voted against the deal.

Israeli cabinet minister Uzi Landau, speaking after casting his vote last week, said the release of more than 1,000 convicted Palestinian terrorists “will be an immense incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions”, adding that the deal seant a clear message that "terror pays".

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner, talking to FRANCE 24 as Shalit returned to Israeli soil, said his release closed the chapter on “one of the great tragedies of Israeli life in the past five years.”

He conceded: “We are paying a very heavy price for it, but there are changes sweeping through the Arab world, and we don’t know what the future will be for the Gaza Strip. We didn’t want him there in six months’ time, when the situation could be much worse.”

Cairo still a lynchpin

Much of the pressure to complete the deal came from Egypt, whose military rulers will reap big rewards from brokering a deal between Hamas and Israel.

Egypt is due to hold legislative elections beginning in November 2011 that will challenge the role of the country’s military rulers, who have been in power since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

“This deal has been helpful for their credibility,” said FRANCE 24’s Cairo correspondent Samer al-Atrush, who pointed out that Hamas enjoys considerable public support in Egypt. “They [the military] have been under a lot of criticism and needed to be seen to be able to get things done.”

And brokering the deal with Israel will also have impressed the US, the Jewish state's biggest ally.

Al-Atrush said: “Egypt’s military rulers want to be seen as an important mediator. Brokering the deal means they have shown their relevance as a regional player. This is most important in terms of the country’s relationship with the US, from which it receives considerable foreign aid.”

Date created : 2011-10-19


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