Human currency

So far, the PLO’s policy of negotiation hasn’t brought more than a symbolic number of prisoners home. (MaanImages)

“We do not negotiate with terrorists” — a long-cherished mantra of Western democracies. In reality all the major powers have at some stage been forced to discuss with militants, from Northern Ireland to Iraq. Now Israel seems on the verge of granting their fiercest enemies Hamas a major coup with the mooted release of up to 1,000 prisoners. What message does this send?

Of course Israel would still be holding around 10,000 Palestinians behind bars, with many more joining them each week. Nonetheless, a mass release of “hard” prisoners, a concession never granted to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president expired in January 2009, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), represents a major departure from previous policy.

In 2007, Israel released 429 prisoners, a move widely seen as a token gesture of support for Abbas, as the majority were serving short sentences for what Israel considered relatively minor crimes. Since then Israel has demonstrated no inclination to strengthen his hand in this or any other area. Abbas’s credibility has nosedived in the wake of his handling of the Goldstone report and inability to control settlement expansion, to the extent that he is on the verge of quitting. Under his leadership the PLO has doggedly pursued a policy of negotiation rather than force and threat, only to discover its partners in the “peace process” did not take their obligations seriously.

Abbas’ failures, determined by US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their predecessors, have strengthened the support base for Hamas. It is rapidly becoming the only Palestinian party that Israel takes seriously, not by choice, but by force. Under their stewardship Gaza remains free of checkpoints and settlements, internally they rule unchallenged, in a way that the West Bank authorities can only dream of. Were it not for the rash of Israeli-supported arrests of their leaders in the West Bank it is highly likely they would have seized power there too.

The massacres and siege have strengthened Hamas’s leadership, internal opposition has been crushed and to the public who voted overwhelmingly in their favor, they are the true voice of resistance. Well-funded, they have been able to gradually develop a de facto state in their Islamist image. They have powerful allies in Egypt too, providing materials through the network of underground tunnels and crucially, providing a hiding place for their golden prize, the captured Israeli soldier. Increasingly Israel finds itself making gestures of goodwill, opening borders to allow the import of 600 calves for the Eid holiday, as well as books and previously (criminally) forbidden humanitarian aid. There now exists permanent lines of communication between Israel and the “terrorists” that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared “could never be a partner.”

That Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmad Saadat and Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti are even discussed as part of any proposed swap is a recognition of Hamas’ newfound power. Many people believe Barghouti would stroll to victory in any presidential election and that he is the one figure powerful enough to unite the warring faction of Fatah and Hamas. If Israel were serious about wanting a strong, united Palestine as a neighbor he would have been released long ago, despite the crimes for which Israel convicted him.

Naturally, the proposed release of these and many other “hard” prisoners, serving long sentences for acts of violence, are generating huge controversy in Israel. Aware of the potential for a public relations disaster the government has not made the prisoner list public, prompting a petition from bereaved parents to the high court for a reversal of this decision. “The government are drafting the agreement by stealth” complained parents’ spokesman Dan Sion and it is hard to disagree. Although Netanyahu has promised a public debate, in all likelihood the result will be predetermined.

The army is determined to secure the captured Israeli soldier’s return by any means necessary and if that means turning Hamas into popular heroes it seems that is a price they are willing to pay. For the PLO, which has wasted years in pointless talks it is a bitter pill to swallow. For the world it is another reminder that force is the only currency the Israeli government trades in.

Kieron Monks is a freelance reporter from London, writing for Ma’an News, Palestine News Network and publications in Europe. A version of this essay was originally published by the Palestine Monitor and is republished with the author’s permission.