When news of the prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel broke a few days ago, the immediate response from the PA establishment in the West Bank was negligible. Yet, people here were aware that Fatah and its supporters would be none-to-happy about Hamas’ likely coup of public opinion in securing the release of Palestinian prisoners, at least a third who were serving life sentences.
Despite signing a reconciliation agreement in Cairo a few months back, there has been little love gained between the two main Palestinian factions. Almost nothing has been done to add substance to the paper-agreement, hold elections, or mend a badly fractured body politic.
And sure enough, after the dust settled and the surprise faded on the prisoner exchange, out came the war of words. Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki unleashed scorn on Hamas in an interview with France 24, raising widely held suspicions over the malicious intent and timing of the move.
“Of course, when the popularity of President Abbas has been rising that high after his speech in the General Assembly delivering our application, one has to question the timing,” he said.
“Is it really intended to boost the popularity of the Israeli government and Hamas vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas? That’s a really legitimate question to be asked,” he added.
Malki went on to criticize the shortfalls of the deal in petty fashion: not securing the release of all the women in Israeli prisons, and the fact that some of the prisoners from the West Bank will be deported to Gaza or into exile.
Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a top Hamas official, responded directly to Al-Malki in the Palestinian and Israeli media by mocking the PA’s own failed attempts to secure a deal.
“Abu Mazen [Abbas] was negotiating a million years and has not achieved such a deal, and he demanded that they [the prisoners] be released without offering anything in return,” Zahar said during an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.
Yet, the political squabbling has not been restricted to high-ranking officials. The Palestinian press in the West Bank, which is strongly supportive of the Palestinian Authority, has been awash with speculation over the apparent motivations and political consequences of the agreement.
It has been reported for example, that Hamas has secured for itself an office in Egypt as part of the deal—Egypt having played host and moderator for the negotiations. Although this may seem trivial, it is an important step that could usher in radical changes for the Islamic organization. Currently based in Damascus, the Hamas politburo is in a tenuous position as the country is on the brink of civil war. A move to Cairo would posit the leadership in much more favorable circumstances, under the protection of its patron and mentor in a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, and closer to its territorial base in the Gaza Strip.
In recent months, Gaza has begun to resemble a state of its own and Hamas has even started issuing visas for entry into the coastal territory. With the exchange deal now under its belt, Hamas has proven itself capable of successfully negotiating with Israel—one being led by the most right-wing government in its history—which is no small achievement.
Moreover, the move raises interesting questions over Hamas’ future intentions. The organization was uncharacteristically quiet when their rivals in the West Bank took their statehood initiative to the United Nations in September. It may be reasonable to assume that Hamas felt criticizing Abbas at that time would have been unwise and opened itself up to criticism of their own. However, once they conclude the prisoner exchange, Hamas will have a much firmer platform from which to open up political attacks on Fatah and the PA.
I would not be surprised if Hamas, who has been reluctant to host elections in the Gaza Strip, now announces itself ready to do just that. Hamas was able to secure the release of many popular figures in their organization, while neither of the major personages from Fatah or PFLP (Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat) will see the light of day. Although getting these two men released would have been a boon for Hamas’ popularity, it may not have translated into their favor come election time.
It is uncertain what Hamas will now do with this new political capital. Will they come back to Palestinian politics with a much stronger hand to play? Or will they retreat into the proto-state they have established on the Mediterranean?
What is clear is that we are witnessing the politicization of even the most harmonizing issue among Palestinians, which is extremely dangerous for a national struggle that needs unity, above all else, to survive.