Friday, October 21, 2011

"We Want More Shalits!"

Khaled Abu Toameh

The prisoner exchange in Israel has increased the prospects of another round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The deal has sent a message to Palestinians that if you kidnap a soldier you get much more than if you sit at the negotiating table with Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now expected to toughen even more his position regarding the resumption of the peace talks with Israel. The prisoner swap has made it almost impossible for him to return to the negotiating table with Israel, at least not in the near future. The deal is a severe blow to Abbas who, at least in public, says he remains committed to a non-violent and peaceful solution with Israel. In light of Hamas's success to force Israel to free a large number of prisoners, Abbas and his team in Ramallah now look like incompetent and weak leaders who have failed to extract significant concessions from Israel at the negotiating table.

Like the withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, the prisoner swap has sent the same message not only to the Palestinians, but to the rest of the Arab world: that violence and kidnappings are the only language that Israel understands, and that the violent struggle against Israel must continue because negotiations do not lead to anything.

Sadly, it is hard to find anyone on the Palestinian side who sees the exchange deal as a sign of Israeli flexibility. On the contrary - Israel's concessions are almost always interpreted as a sign of weakness that eventually leads to more violence. The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was seen as a sign of Israeli weakness in the face of increased rocket and suicide attacks. The withdrawal from southern Lebanon before that was also viewed as a sign of weakness in the face of Hizbollah's attacks on Israel.

Statements made by many of the released prisoners and several Hamas leaders don't bode well for the future. They view the deal as an Israeli capitulation to their demands and are now calling for the kidnapping of more Israeli soldiers to trade them for the remaining Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Chanting "We want more Shalits!," thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the Gaza Strip to greet the released prisoners and call on Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups to hurry up and launch more operations to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Some of the released prisoners have even announced their intention to pursue the "struggle" against Israel until all the Palestinians' demands are met. One of them, Wafa al-Biss, has even told Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip that she wished they would become "martyrs" in the fight against Israel. Al-Biss had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for planning to blow herself up outside an Israeli hospital in 2005.

Some Western leaders and governments had expressed hope that the prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas would pave the way for a "new era" in relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Some Israelis have even expressed hope that the deal would lead to peace talks between Israel and Hamas.

In reality, the prisoner swap has achieved the exact opposite. It has once again created the impression understands. Those who see the deal as a sign of Hamas's "moderation" and "pragmatism" are deluding themselves. And those who think that the release of more than 1,000 Palestinians from Israeli prisons would have a moderating effect on the Palestinians are also living under an illusion.

Those who argue that the prisoner exchange is an indication that Hamas wants to negotiate with Israel are obviously living on a different planet. It is clear by now that it is only a matter of time before Hamas or any other Palestinian group try to kidnap another soldier or Israeli civilian in order to copy the Shalit example. The deal has given them a strong incentive to try once again to snatch a soldier or civilian to achieve that goal.

The deal will only strengthen Hamas's resolve to stick to its radical ideology and continue the fight "until the liberation of all of Palestine." If Hamas is going to change as a result of the deal, it will only be for the worse.

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