As Israel celebrates, and the world welcomes, the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas, the Islamist party controlling the Gaza Strip, has emerged with a significant victory in its push for Palestinian political supremacy.

The political importance, in Israel, attached to Shalit’s imprisonment was reflected in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement to the media on Tuesday.

“Two and a half years ago, with the forming of my government, I took it upon myself as my most significant task to return Gilad to his people and his family and return alive and well,” he said.

Netanyahu even spoke of Shalit during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in a bid to delegitimise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to achieve Palestinian statehood, saying: “Gilad Shalit is the son of every Israeli family.  Every nation here should demand his immediate release … if you want to pass a resolution about the Middle East today, that’s the resolution you should pass.”

However, the real significance of Shalit’s release rests not with the single Israeli soldier but the 1027 Palestinian prisoners who will be freed.

The political background of Palestinians included in the prisoner swap — and its timing — is curious, given the Palestinians’ recent move for United Nations recognition of statehood.

Hamas opposes Abbas’ manoeuvring within the UN.  Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas’ heartland, the President has received an unprecedented level of popular support following his trip to New York last month.  Thousands gathered across the major population centres of the West Bank to listen to his speech at the General Assembly, broadcast live on large screens.  Upon Abbas’ return to Ramallah, on September 25, thousands gathered again to greet him as a returning hero.

In Gaza, it was reported Hamas smashed televisions screening the speech in coffee shops, in an attempt to dissuade locals from openly supporting their political rivals.  Abbas was widely applauded as having played a masterful hand on the domestic and international stage.

Since his capture in 2006, Gilat Shalid has been the ace up Hamas’ sleeve.

On Thursday, negotiations, overseen by Egyptian intelligence, between Hamas and Israel began in Cairo.  By Tuesday, a deal appeared ready to be announced.

The statements of officials from within Netanyahu’s office indicate it was Hamas that moved to finalise the arrangements.

“A brief window of opportunity has been opened that would possibly lead to Gilad Shalit’s homecoming,” the unnamed official was reported as saying by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

The deal includes prisoners from across the Palestinian political spectrum.

Of the first 450 prisoners to be released, 280 are serving life sentences.  While many of those being freed are significant Hamas operatives, a significant number of those included are from Fatah and other political parties.  In two months the second, and final, tranche of prisoners will be released.  These prisoners will be chosen by Israel.

Despite rumours to the contrary, one man not being released is Marwan Barghouti, architect of the Second Intifida.  Barghouti, a Fatah party member sentenced to five life terms in 2002, is one of the few Palestinian political figures commanding the respect of both sides of the Fatah-Hamas divide.  Since the death of Yasser Arafat he has assumed the cult status of a national resistance leader.

Regardless of the lack of major political figures, such as Barghouti and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine general-secretary Ahmed Sa’adat, the deal represents a significant victory over their political rivals in Fatah.

Speaking in Damascus on Tuesday, Hamas leader Khamed Meshal spoke of the significance of Hamas’ triumph in securing the deal.

“This is a national achievement that we should be proud of,” he said. “We were very keen for this deal to include prisoners from across different categories, from different age groups and from the West Bank and from Gaza, from Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.”

Hamas is often seen by Palestinians as a group, that while hard-line, is not willing to compromise and is prepared to make sacrifices for the benefit of the Palestinian cause.   While Fatah, through the Palestinian Authority, has opted to forgo armed resistance and back negotiations as a means of achieving the goals of the national struggle, Hamas has insisted on being prepared to take up arms and resort to means often condemned by the international community.

As Abbas’ proposal to the United Nations appears to be mired in a bureaucratic process with the likely outcome of a United States veto, it is Hamas that can claim to have secured real results for Palestinian people — both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Peter Fray

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