The swap deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the freeing of 1027 Palestinian detainees is underway today, after the the High Court of Justice rejected numerous petitions against the execution of the deal on Monday.
Just before Israel releases the Palestinians, more than 280 of whom are serving life-sentences, Shalit will be taken by Hamas to Egypt. He will see Israeli officials in the Sinai Peninsula and go to a military base for a quick check-up. As soon as he is considered well enough to travel, an Air Force helicopter will take him to Israel.
An Egyptian official told Haaretz that “Israel in fact agreed to release 40 of the 70 prisoners that it had adamantly refused to let go, after Hamas submitted an extensive list of heavyweight prisoners from which Israel would choose. And Hamas, for its part, agreed that those prisoners would be deported." However, speaking to Al Jazeera, top Hamas official Osama Hamdan indicated that those deported would not necessarily stay away from the region forever.
In other words, although Hamas could not secure the release of all female prisoners --- a criticism made by its Palestianian rival Fatah --- it did get further Israeli concessions on the top prisoners about whom West Jerusalem had previously refused negotations. As for Hamas' political position, it is not that important whether 40 people are in Palestine as long as they are not in prison.
So why did Israel accept the deal now?
In July, we speculated that --- given the Palestinian application for United Nations recognition, deadlocked negotiations, and collapsed diplomatic manoeuvres --- the Obama Administration might acknowledge Hamas behind closed doors, give Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas a guarantee that Ramallah will never need to recognise a “Jewish state”, and promise a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital in a year. None of that has happened; however, we also noted htat “a sign can be given to Netanyahu that he can be a peace-making hero ahead of Israeli elections. How? The release of Gilad Shalit, the detained Israel soldier, by Hamas.”
In the absence of a move in the so-called peace process, Shalit was the best saviour for a Netanyahu Government before upcoming elections. Meanwhile, West Jerusalem --- again in the absence of any move towards a settlement with the Palestinian Authority --- shows the international community its “kindness and honesty for real peace”, in the words of Israeli officials. There may even be a bit of punishment in the move: Israel, upset with Mahmoud Abbas' recourse to the UN, may undermine his position as Hamas gains credibility.
From a position of relative weakness, the Netanyahu Government will try to regain its position at home and abroad. It can now put forth flexibility rather than intransigence. And, even though Hamas and other Gazan organisations will also try to build on political capital from this deal, West Jerusalem holds the advantage of being a recognised actor in the ongoing if deadlocked negotiations over Palestine's future.
And a bonus point for Israel --- the Palestinian Authority made a strategic mistake when it accused Hamas that the deal to free Shalit is insufficient since it did not include the release of many Fatah members. In response, top Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said Abbas "negotiated with Israel for a million years and hasn't achieved a deal like this one".
At the end of the day Abbas, for a stronger political and diplomatic position, will need to co-operate with Hamas as Palestine's status changes from “a non-member entity” to “a non-member state” at the UN General Assembly. Embracing rather than denigrating the Shalit deal would have been a better step in this context.
And, as Netanyahu looks for the bounce from today, a little-noticed message from Israel as well --- amidst the anticipation of a Shalit release, Jerusalem's Regional Planning and Construction Committee approved a plan to build 1,100 housing units amidst the 40,000 people in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. So much then for Israeli restraint in expanding settlements in Palestinian areas.