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What will Hamas do with its new political capital?

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.

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    1. Richard Witty

      For the well-being of all, Palestinian unity is critical.

      It is obviously for the well-being of Palestinians, as with unity, there is some possibility of whichever of the two plausible outcomes is pursued (two-state based on green line, or single democratic state).

      It is also for the well-being of Israel as with a unified Palestine there is someone to negotiate with, if they ever got around to being willing to.

      Peace and justice could be achieved.

      One reasoning that Netanyahu was willing to undertake a transfer of 1027 prisoners (over half on the basis of violence) is to deflect from Abbas’ momentum. That both Hamas and likud desire to deflect from that momentum is a bad sign, actually a long-standing collaboration to deter any reconciliation.

      Netanyahu wants to deter from any recognition of Palestinian rights. Hamas wants to deter from any reconciliation of Israeli.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sylvia


      “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.”
      The Egyptian position has tilted in favor of Hamas already with the fall of Mubarak. So it didn’t need the deal to secure its position.
      What is not impossible, however, is that the last negotiations over the prisoners have softened somewhat Israel’s stance toward Meshaal and he may cease to be an Israeli target (which is the reason he is in Syria).
      And who knows, he might even be permitted to set his office in Gaza and even run for the Palestinian Presidency.
      If that happens, remember where you’ve heard it first:)

      Reply to Comment
    3. aristeides

      Mahmoud Zahar is claiming that Israel has agreed to lift the blockade as part of the deal. This will certainly not happen.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ramzi

      This is been a prevailing strategy for the Israeli government for many years. Bolster Hamas when Fatah presents a challenge (the statehood bid). They’ve supported Hamas in the past to sow discord among the Palestinians, and now the timing of this deal is seems to fit that narrative too well.

      And of course, whether Israel needs demons or a deal to perpetuate the occupation, Hamas always rises to the occasion…

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sylvia

      Haaretz breaking news:
      “11:32 Hamas chief Khaled Meshal currently in el-Arish (Channel 2)”
      From El-Arish to Gaza it is only a matter of a short ride.
      The timing coinciding with Shalit press conference is I think very telling.
      I was on to something, after all

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sylvia

      The ones to watch wr pitting Hamas against Fath is the radical left (certain elements in Haaretz, for exemple, proponents of a one State solution with a co-rule by the elites from both sides, etc). I believe that they are much more disappointed than the Israeli government – or the Israeli people for that matter – by Mahmoud Abbas’s bid at the UN.

      Reply to Comment
    7. RichardNYC

      I think Hamas will use its new political capital to unify the Palestinian people and agree on a two-state solution and permanent end to the conflict based on mutual recognition of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples! 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    8. WISDO

      For Palestinians the question will be, which party gets tangible results?

      Fatah, which thanks to the Palestine papers, we now know is supine to the demands of Israel.
      Or Hamas which talks tough and appears to get things done.
      Israel pays lip service to wanting peace and all that jazz while simultaneously carving new slices out of the future Palestinian state and oppressing the population to within an inch of their lives.
      You would think they should boost Fatah and their obedience not bolster Hamas with their impudence.

      Aha, but promoting Hamas allows Israel to punish the Palestinians for supporting hamas. Its hard to keep up the pretence of existentialist fear, when your “enemy” (i.e. the neighbours) are basically cowering and supplicant.

      Reply to Comment