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The Political Games Behind Gilad Shalit's Release

Hamas has agreed this week to free Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who has been held for over five years. The prisoner swap deal that gained his freedom has been lauded as a diplomatic and political triumph by both Hamas and the Israeli government. Given the current political climate, Shalit’s release might be a sign of increasing weakness and political desperation from both Hamas and Netanyahu’s government. 

When Shalit was first captured in 2005, Hamas was close to the zenith of its popularity. Hamas would go on to claim over 44% of the vote in Palestinian elections. Despite being labeled as a terrorist organization, Palestinians widely saw Hamas as a liberation fighters aiming to establish a sovereign Palestinian state free of Israeli control.

In response to Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket attacks, Israel tightened the noose, eventually instituting a severe blockade on Gaza. Faced with ever-increasing restrictions, shortages, and unemployment, Palestinians began to lose faith in Hamas' hard-line approach to dealing with Israel. In desperate need of cash, the Hamas government levied higher taxes, further alienating support.

Just like Israel, Hamas was completely outmaneuvered when the Palestinian Authority (PA), the other political body that claims to govern the Palestinian people, sought UN recognition for a Palestinian state. The PA’s support skyrocketed virtually overnight; the PA’s non-violent approach to dealing with Israeli occupation was seemingly set to pay massive dividends.

The current premiership of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was not faring much better. Domestic opinion of his confrontational style of government and his perceived aggression against Palestinians was increasingly unfavorable. His abject refusal to deal with a potentially sovereign Palestinian state was at odds with the Israeli population. The Netanyahu government’s seeming incapacity to deal with the current recession has culminated in massive instances of civil disobedience across the country.

To compound matters for both Netanyahu and Hamas, the Arab Spring completely altered the state of Middle Eastern affairs. With Syria, Hamas’ regional ally, no longer able to provide it the support it desperately needed, and with a new Egyptian government wanting nothing more than a normalized situation on the Gaza border, both sides were rapidly running out of diplomatic and domestic options.

Thus, both Hamas and Netanyahu were corralled into doing a deal with “the enemy” to garner some quick political points. Shalit's detainment had been a major issue of concern for the Israeli public ever since his capture. It remained an avowed priority of the three Israeli governments since Shalit fell into Hamas hands. Hamas, likewise, needed a quick domestic victory to shore up its floundering support.

On paper, it would seem that Hamas had fleeced the Israelis. For the release of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including high profile leaders, Israel received a single hostage in return. However, Shilat’s symbolic value and international support cannot be overstated, and such magnanimity could be used to deflect some of the criticism over Netanyahu’s supposedly “heartless” government. Netanyahu himself was quick to accept significant personal credit.

For Hamas, releasing Shilat meant losing their most powerful bargaining chip. Not since 1994 has a Palestinian group ever held an Israeli hostage; with Shilat’s release, Hamas will find future negotiations with Israel a lot more difficult. Still, in securing the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, Hamas will remind the Palestinian people of its continuing relevance and influence. The PA, while publicly welcoming the exchange, will undoubtedly be concerned.

But with both Netanyahu and Hamas playing their best cards for short-term political expediency, one cannot help but wonder if this is their respective swansongs.

Photo Credit: Tom Spender

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