Celebration in the Middle East, But for How Long?

By Ershad Abubacker

Mitzpe Hila, a small town in northern Israel close to Lebanon border must not have seen such a celebration in the recent years.  Similarly the 200,000 Palestinians who assembled in Katiba Square in Gaza city last night did not have anything like this to cheer about for many years. The Egyptian brokered prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel meant that the world would witness an extremely rare moment in the history of Middle East when the people in Israel and Gaza celebrate for the same cause at the same time.

For the first time in many years people in Gaza had reasons to celebrate and Hamas will be receiving the kudos for that. Gilat Shalit the Israeli soldier who has been in the custody of Hamas for the past five years and four months has finally released in a historic prisoner swap deal between bitter enemies Hamas and Israel. About 477 Palestinians were released in the first phase for Gilat, which will be followed by the release of 550 prisoners during the course of next two months. Among all differences, it was heartening to see that the majority of Israelis welcomed this deal and Gilat was given a very warm welcome in his home town even by the Israeli Arabs living in the area.

Given the circumstances surrounding this deal, this looks more like a business deal than a diplomatic one and cannot be considered as part of the wider peace process in the region. Nevertheless, this prisoner swap has helped great deal in ratifying the myth that Israel and Hamas will not be able to sit at negotiation table facing each other.

Hamas had recently been pushed to the back foot when the UN Membership campaign led by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had gained momentum among ordinary Palestinians. There were also reports that Hamas was running short of money and the turbulent political climate in Syria, where many of their leaders are based, also did not go in their favour. But the victory of Hamas lie in the fact that prisoner swap deal extracted from Israel meant that the list of prisoners included members of almost all Palestinian factions including Fatah, Arab Israelis and even few women prisoners. 

The prisoners released in the deal will have an increased responsibility in ironing out the differences between various Palestinian factions, especially the Fatah and Hamas. Obviously, the Hamas leaders took great pride in achieving this deal and said that this victory was the reward of the patience of the Palestinians inside West Bank, Gaza and the Diaspora. The person who had not got anything to show up for the day was Mahmoud Abbas. He might well be painted as the loser in this deal, but he addressed a large gathering in West Bank that included many released prisoners and he met a few of them personally.

At the same time, this deal must not have struck in a better time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There were widespread resentment inside Israel against his government and the shift in regional politics with respect to the Arab Spring meant that he needed to show up something to boost his dwindling support.

At the same time, there has been some bitterness among sections of Israelis who were against the release of certain Palestinian prisoners convicted for multiple life sentences. Grief struck among the Palestinian families whose relatives imprisoned in Israel was not listed in this deal, like the charismatic Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. But this sentiment was over ridden by the sheer volumes of people who celebrated the prisoners release in West Bank, Gaza and Mitzpe Hila, the home town of Gilat Shalit.

As always, the mainstream media portrayed the whole event with the Israeli soldier Gilat being portrayed as hero and 477 Palestinian prisoners mentioned as just a number, a part of a bigger abstraction. That apart, this deal does not bring about any significant difference to the lives of the ordinary Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza. Nor does this give enough solace to the families of more than 5000 prisoners not included in this deal still languishing in Israeli jails. Nevertheless, this perpetual zero-sum game gave the world a brief moment when Israel and Palestine were not at odds with each other.

Off late the American public has started to openly criticize the US foreign policy with respect to Israel. The unfathomable proportion of military aid that the US still bestows its most trusted ally in the middle east has not gone down well with many ordinary tax payers in America, especially in the current turbulent economic conditions. Rather than cutting down military aid to Israel, US has now threatened to freeze all financial aid to Palestine if they are moving forward with the UN statehood bid.

Among all these, there were a couple of things worth noticing.  The Nobel Peace Prize for Tawakel Karman, a Yemen based Muslim women with roots based on Muslim Brotherhood, did surprise many. She is the fifth Muslim to receive this award since its inception after the likes of Muhammed Anwar Sadath, Yasser Arafat, Shirin Ebadi and Mohamed ElBaradei. Given the political reasoning behind the Nobel Peace Prize for all the prior recipients from Muslim Community, one could clearly make out that all the four before Karman were awarded in the ‘thanks giving category’ for services rendered to either United States or Israel. One would wonder if the Swedish Academy, who surprised the whole world including the recipient himself a couple of years ago when it conferred the coveted peace prize to Barack Obama, did bring about a brand new surprise this year!

Another is the statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing her willingness to work with Islamists if they are elected to power in Egypt. Hamas who has not been recognized by the United States as a state player would like to learn a few lessons from Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in case they are elected to power.  Analyzing these gestures and labeling them as a paradigm shift in US policy towards Muslim world will be far too optimistic to think about. But these are signals worth encouraging and looking forward to.

– Ershad Abubacker is a Research Analyst based in Chennai. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at ershadna@gmail.com.

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