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Why a prisoner deal with Hamas is unlikely

Despite recent reports about a possible prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, the reality is that there is no single, strong Hamas leader in Gaza who is free to make such decisions.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Pinhas Inbar (JCPA)
Pinhas Inbari
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Reports about a pending prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas are gaining momentum. However, according to Palestinian sources in Ramallah, there are still major obstacles in the way, particularly within Hamas.

The motivating factor behind the current discussions was panic among the families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, who sought to gain their release in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Complicating Hamas’ position, however, is the involvement of several mediators, each with a different agenda, as well as internal competition among Hamas leaders.

The leading mediator is Egypt. Its partner in Gaza is Yahya Sinwar, the head of Gaza’s Shura council, the overarching political and decision-making body of Hamas. His only interest is Gaza. He doesn’t care about the West Bank or the wider interests of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe or the Middle East.

According to Ramallah sources, not everyone in the Shura council is on the same page as Sinwar. Competing leaders include Fathi Hamad, who represents the northern part of Gaza; Sinwar is from the south. There is also Mahmoud al-Zahar, who represents Iranian interests for the benefit of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He maintains close relations with Hamas offices in Beirut that are connected with Hezbollah.

The Hamas Politburo, based in Qatar, is connected with the global outreach of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet today, the Brotherhood is interested in Europe. They want to “conquer Rome” from within, especially through a coalition with European Union socialists known as the “Red-Green” alliance. They are not interested in the jihadi, “resistance” rhetoric of Hamas because in Europe they have to operate as “moderates.” This is the essence of a “political Islam” that Hamas in Gaza cannot identify with because of its jihadi, “resistance” character.

Ismail Haniyeh is the head of the Hamas Politburo. Because he could not accommodate Sinwar’s agenda, he had to leave Gaza for Qatar. However, he discovered that the previous, “deposed” chairman, Khaled Mashal, is still the boss because of his close relations with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. An additional Hamas rival is Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey. Both Mashal and al-Arouri are from the West Bank, and the Gaza leadership made it clear to them long ago that they had no political future in Gaza.

Sources in Ramallah report that both Haniyeh and Mashal have made several recent phone calls to the P.A. leadership in Ramallah, though the sources said they were devoid of real content. The impression is that the contacts occurred at the request of Qatar, with the aim of improving relations with P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas. According to the sources, Haniyeh and Mashal discussed the long forgotten Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the topic of new Palestinian elections. Yet Abbas is not interested in either issue. On one occasion he reportedly refused to accept a call from Mashal, passing it on to P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Why is Qatar interested in improving relations with Abbas? Because Ramallah secretly decided to let Qatari cash enter the P.A. only through the formal budget, but Qatar refused. So Qatari money goes only to Gaza now.

Egypt, through Sinwar, wants to reap the political rewards of a prisoner deal, while Qatar, together with Turkey, wants to spoil such a deal, as does Iran. So, as my sources tell me, as long as Sinwar cannot convince his colleagues, who are influenced by distant powers, he cannot cut a deal Israel could accept.

In Shura meetings, Sinwar’s adversaries reportedly pinned him to conditions that are difficult for Israel to accept, including the release of all those re-arrested after having been released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal. But those who had been re-arrested had returned to terrorism, especially in the Hebron area where the military wing of Hamas is strong.

Another condition relates to the release of aged prisoners who have spent many years in jail and are in a high-risk group due to COVID-19. Hamas is demanding that Israel release faction leaders such as PFLP Secretary-General Ahmad Sa’adat, who is serving a 30-year sentence for his role in the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in Jerusalem in 2001. Hamas is also demanding the release of West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who commanded the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the Second Intifada. Barghouti was convicted of murder and was given five life sentences. But we assume that Hamas will not insist on this.

The very fact that Hamas is conducting the talks is a problem for the P.A. in Ramallah, which claims to lead the Palestinians. In addition, the extended Barghouti family is now in opposition to Ramallah because they claim the P.A. has not tried hard enough to release Marwan. The result is that the Barghoutis and Hamas are coming closer together, and if Hamas is able to achieve his release, this may create serious problems for Ramallah.

The same may be said about Sa’adat, whose PFLP is now in an open dispute with the P.A. over funding.

So while there are talks about a possible prisoner exchange deal, there is no single, strong Hamas leader in Gaza who is free to make such decisions.

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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