Leading article: Hamas compromise is at least a sign of hope

The biggest danger is that freed prisoners go on to commit new acts of terrorism
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The Independent Online

Aside from the man himself and his family, there is a real question as to who benefits from the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier set free by Hamas militants after five years' imprisonment in Gaza. The answer is certainly not Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, who wrong-footed both Israel and his Hamas rivals last month by going to the UN to request full membership for the state of Palestine. The move was a canny one that sent the weak President Abbas's popularity shooting up and even saw some young Hamas leaders coming out in support. But, in such a context, the negotiations for the release of Mr Shalit in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners look very much like Hamas's attempt to claw back ground.

In their turn, the leaders of Hamas, whose popularity has been hit by economic problems in Gaza, may justifiably be feeling more secure again. Prisoners are held in high esteem in Palestinian society and the release of 470 yesterday, with 550 more to come next month, will boost the militant group's popularity, strengthening its position in negotiations with Mr Abbas's Fatah faction ahead of elections next April.

Most strikingly, the fact that Hamas, like Israel, has compromised in the prisoner swap is a sign of at least a hope for peace in the troubled region. Not only was there an implicit recognition of Israel in the act of negotiating; Hamas also settled for a lower number of freed prisoners than it wanted – and accepted the Israeli condition that some of those freed would not be allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank or Gaza. Equally, Israel backed down over its demands that at least a quarter of the prisoners be deported to Turkey, Jordan, Qatar or Syria. A gratifying display of compromise.

The gain for the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is that any weakening of President Abbas reduces the prospects of a diplomatic deal requiring Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. The swap also builds support in the centre ground of Israeli politics, where he has faced mass demonstrations over the economy. In fact, after decades of preaching "No Deal with Hamas", Mr Netanyahu has shown himself a pragmatist without sacrificing any fundamental ground. The Israeli right may not like a deal which seems to reward terrorism. But, crucially, the Prime Minister has gained more support than he has lost.

Meanwhile, the deal illuminates an interesting regional shift. The revolution in Egypt, much to Israel's alarm, has given prominence to Islamists, opening the way for Cairo to play a more active role than in the Mubarak years. That Turkey was involved in the negotiations over Gilad Shalit suggests Ankara may already be returning to its old brokering role with Israel.

With the agreement between Israel and Hamas sealed, the most significant danger is that freed Palestinian prisoners go on to commit new acts of terrorism. There are certainly concerning signs. Many in Hamas were yesterday trumpeting the swap as a validation of their violent resistance, a position underscored by support for the deal from Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group. Sadly, it is a position that benefits from contrast with the results of Mr Abbas's non-violent diplomatic strategy, namely Washington holding back $200m of aid from the Palestinian Authority, closing down the only power plant in the Gaza Strip.

But for all the dangers, the prisoner swap is welcome evidence of movement in a region where talks have been stalled for more than a year. Releasing prisoners is never easy, but, as was seen in Northern Ireland, it is often an important part of a peace process. There is still much to play for, hence the rival celebrations for freed prisoners held by Fatah and Hamas in Ramallah and Gaza City yesterday. But any progress is better than stalemate.