The prisoner exchange between Hamas and the Israeli government came at the only time it could; when the interests of both sides were aligned. In a sense, the actions of Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations (UN) in September precipitated the deal. Both Hamas and the Netanyahu government sought to bolster their domestic popularity in its wake; something they managed with different degrees of success. The exchange — still unconcluded as October came to a close — has the potential to have an impact beyond its immediate implications, particularly for Palestinian reconciliation and the Gaza siege.
In June 2006 Hamas conducted a raid in which they killed two Israeli soldiers and captured one. The party’s stated intent was to gain enough leverage to compel Israel into conducting a prisoner swap for some of the roughly 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, many of whom are political prisoners.
On October 18, Hamas and Israel completed the first stage of that swap. When the two-stage swap is concluded, 1027 Palestinians and one Israeli will have been liberated. It is significant that the exchange happened now and not years ago when the two sides appeared to be close to a deal. The gap between them was likely bridged by a mutual deterioration in their political situations.
Abbas — probably unknowingly — was the common denominator between the two adversaries. His appearance at the UN successfully undermined Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a lesser extent, Hamas. The call for an independent Palestinian state resonated so deeply and widely in the international community that both the Israeli government and the Islamic movement were forced onto the defensive. Hamas has also become increasingly sensitive as its patron Syria has been marginalized. Both parties sought to boost their support among their constituencies and the high-visibility, high-impact strategy of securing the release of prisoners was the best way to do that. Hamas gained more from the deal but Netanyahu also experienced a bump in the polls. Furthermore, whether it was intended or not, the exchange had the added effect of undermining Abbas in two ways.
Firstly, Hamas demonstrated to the Palestinians that it could produce results: the release of Palestinian prisoners. Abbas by contrast seemed only capable of producing political theater. Further, Netanyahu made a massive concession to the extremists in his cabinet so as to gain their support for the deal. He agreed to the establishment of a new settlement which will consolidate the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, thus accelerating the erosion of Abbas’ credibility.
Aware of how weak the prisoner exchange with Hamas has made Abbas look, members of the Israeli government are now talking of attempting to bolster his public image by releasing more prisoners. However, hardliners led by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have protested loudly against any such move.
The political consequences of the prisoner exchange for the Palestinians are still unclear. It is likely that Hamas’ insistence upon the release of prisoners from all of the political factions earned the movement’s leadership goodwill among rank-and-file Fatah partisans. It may also work to thaw the hardened edges that have developed between the two factions in recent years, which would make a genuine reconciliation among the Palestinians possible.
Equally significant is the unprecedented degree of cooperation between Hamas and Israel. While not approaching anything like mutual recognition, the level of contact required for coordinating the exchange may provide the basis for future agreements on the scope of the Israeli siege on Gaza. Indeed, there have already been calls from both sides for the removal of the blockade — which was tightened punitively when Hamas captured the Israeli soldier.
The gains made by Hamas are also reflected on a regional level. According to recent media reports, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader, may be meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah soon. Observers believe that the organization is currently exploring the possibility of establishing political bureaus in Cairo and Amman.
Both Hamas and Israel have gained from the prisoner exchange. The Netanyahu government has improved its approval ratings while the Islamic party has reinvigorated its base and bolstered its reputation. What remains to be seen is whether the Hamas leadership is able to leverage the goodwill generated by the deal to weaken the siege on the Gaza Strip and achieve genuine reconciliation with Fatah.
AHMED MOOR is a contributor to Al Jazeera English and is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government