Dec 11 2009

Prisoner exchange not an alternative to negotiations

Published by at 10:14 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Daoud Kuttab

AMMAN – If the Islamic movement Hamas succeeds in obtaining the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many with long-term sentences, it will, no doubt, complicate the delicate attempts to reach a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an accomplishment will prove that those who use violence can produce better results than those—like President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—who rely on non-violent negotiated means to achieve the liberation of land and prisoners.

However, whatever benefits Hamas will reap from this deal, history shows that the likely boost to its popularity will not be long lived.

For decades, Palestinians have tried almost every method possible to secure freedom and liberty for their people and lands. PLO guerrillas tried the armed struggle in the 60s and 70s of the last century. Palestinian youths used stones and boycotted Israeli products in the first intifada of 1987, and Yasser Arafat and his negotiators tried secret talks in 1993. All failed to produce liberation.

In 2000 a wave of violence led by Hamas included armed attacks and bombings of military and civilian Israeli targets. The Israeli decision to dismantle all settlements in Gaza and the withdrawal of the Israeli army to international borders is being spun as a direct result of Hamas tactics. While Israelis may dispute this argument, the fact that it did come while Hamas was carrying out suicide bombings and rocket attacks, make it hard to totally reject this claim.

Now a more obvious victory for the Hamas tactic is underway. Efforts by the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas to gain the release of prisoners, including members of his own Fateh movement, have not born fruit, while Hamas will now be able to boast that their tactic succeeded to secure the release of prisoners from all factions. If it hadn’t taken the Israeli soldier prisoner, Hamas would not have been able to negotiate the release of so many Palestinian prisoners. Conclusion: violent resistance produces results in liberating lands and prisoners. So the logic goes.

Naturally the situation is not as black and white as this. First of all, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical one only as the Israeli army units simply regrouped to the outer edges of Gaza. Israel’s two-year long crippling siege of the strip is the best proof that Gaza has not been liberated even though Israeli soldiers are no longer roaming the streets of Jabalya refugee camp. Since the beginning of the siege and during the war on Gaza, Israel launched most of its attacks from the air, and experienced very few losses as a result. In actual fact, the Israeli withdrawal from populated areas in Gaza has not reduced the number of Palestinian deaths but it has drastically reduced the number of Israeli deaths.

Moreover, Hamas successes are not sufficient to reverse the negative public response to their approach or activities. Public opinion polls have shown a huge drop in Hamas’ popularity since its electoral victory in 2006. While the prisoner exchange will undoubtedly boost their ratings, it is highly unlikely to bring them back to 2006 levels.
In the 1980s, a prisoner exchange took place as a result of an agreement between Israel and the Ahmad Jibril faction of the renegade PFLP faction. The pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command who had captured an Israeli soldier, succeeded in exchanging him for hundreds of PLO prisoners at the time. And while Ahmad Jibril’s popularity temporarily rose, it has not been sustained and his faction failed to prove its relevance and effectiveness within Palestinian political circles.

Overall, there has been no significant change in the way most Palestinians approach the peace process. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Palestinians still believe in the need for a negotiated resolution to the conflict. While some might have romantic ideas about armed resistance and political activists will probably milk this prisoner exchange for years to come, the bottom line is that capturing an Israeli in order to exchange him for hundreds of Palestinians or the shooting of amateur rockets into populated Israeli towns are not long-term strategies for the liberation of Palestine.

No Palestinian patriot can oppose a prisoner exchange that will result in the freeing of those who have sacrificed for Palestine. But a search for an effective liberation strategy will require a different mind-set.

Caught between refusing to follow Hamas’ tactics and losing hope that Israel will respond to the negotiators’ just demands, Palestinian moderates will have to search for a winning strategy. Any effective means for bringing about an end to Israeli occupation and the creation of a truly independent state will require a holistic approach that makes use of Palestinian strengths. Unity of purpose, steadfastness, holding onto the land, focussing on creating a de facto state and insisting on inalienable rights to self-determination are, perhaps, the best strategies.


* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His email is This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 December 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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