Commentary Magazine


Contentions

What Hamas Really Wants from a Prisoner Swap

One myth the negotiations over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit should definitively debunk is that Hamas’s leadership actually cares about the fate of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In exchange for Shalit, Israel has offered to free 980 Palestinian prisoners, including 450 chosen in consultation with Hamas. And by all accounts, it has already agreed to almost all the 450 specific prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding: the London-based daily Al-Hayat claimed today that Israel has agreed to 400 of them; the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam claimed yesterday that Israel has agreed to all but 15.

Hence if Hamas really wanted to free a large number of Palestinian prisoners — including hundreds involved in some of the worst terrorist violence of the past two decades — all it had to do was say yes. And since the handful Israel still refuses to release includes several senior Hamas figures, such a deal would even reap a public relations bonus: it would show that Hamas is willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole, to let some of its top people stay in jail in order to win freedom for almost 1,000 of its Palestinian brethren.

But in fact, Hamas has said no, publicly and repeatedly. Why? Because, as Al-Ayyam quoted a Hamas source saying, even the mere 15 prisoners whom that paper claims Israel is standing firm on are “a red line, without which there will be no deal.” Al-Hayat offered a similar explanation.

There are only two possible ways to interpret this. One, of course, is that Hamas’s leadership cares only about the handful of top-level terrorists in its inner circle, and unless they are released, the other 900-plus Palestinians can rot in jail forever for all it cares.

The other is that Hamas doesn’t actually care about any of the prisoners; what it cares about is proving that it can bend Israel completely to its will.

Granted, Hamas has already gotten Israel to capitulate almost completely. After initially refusing to negotiate at all, Israel began by agreeing to only 70 of the names on Hamas’s list and has since steadily retreated. In March, it agreed to release 325 of those on Hamas’s wish list, and now it has agreed to 400 or even 435.

But “almost” is not enough if the goal is to prove that Hamas’s path of “resistance” (i.e., terror) works better than Fatah’s tactic of diplomatic pressure. After all, Fatah has also gotten Israel to capitulate on almost everything: just last year, Ehud Olmert offered it the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories, including East Jerusalem, plus international Muslim control of the Temple Mount. Yet even then, Israel held out on a few issues, like the “right of return.” Hence to prove that “resistance” is the better path, Hamas needs 100 percent capitulation.

The truly scary part is that it might yet get it. But if not, those 980 prisoners can continue rotting in jail — sacrifices on the altar of Hamas’s partisan interests.