Does Hamas see its interests better served with Barghouti released or in Israeli jail?
GAZA/ RAMALLAH – Palestinian political circles are sceptical about the serious intent of Hamas to exchange Marwan Barghouti for Israeli prisoners in a deal it reportedly seeks to reach with Tel Aviv.
The militant group would prefer to compete with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in the electoral elections rather than face a staunch opponent like Bargouti, analysts say.
Sources in the Hamas movement insist that Barghouti is at the top of the Hamas list of names that it will negotiate indirectly with Israel. Analysts doubt Hamas’ credibility, however, and classify its professed intentions as part of internal electoral manoeuvres aimed at improving the image of the radical Palestinian movement abroad.
Barghouti’s alliance with the former leader of the Fatah movement, Nasser al-Kudwa in a joint list, will affect the course of the legislative elections. Abbas has already dismissed Kudwa from the membership of Fatah and its central committee.
Hamas is said to hold four Israelis, two of whom are soldiers who were captured during the Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 (without disclosing their fate or health), while the other two had entered Gaza in unclear circumstances during the past few years.
Hamas is demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the four Israelis.
Earlier, the Palestine Liberation Organisation announced that Hamas had requested the lists of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.
It noted that Hamas had not consulted the official Palestinian body in charge of detainees about the deal that the Iranian-backed Islamist movement is trying to clinch for the exchange of prisoners.
Sources say there is speculation about unprecedented concessions made by Hamas to Israel in order to make possible a prisoner exchange.
The Head of the Prisoners and Former Prisoners’ Affairs Authority, Qadri Abu Bakr, said that there are “currently 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in 23 Israeli jails, 22 of which are within the Green Line (Israel) and Ofer Prison inside the 1967 territories (West Bank).”
Abu Bakr made it clear that no consultations with the Palestinian authorities have occurred over the reported prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel.
On April 7, Israel called for the immediate resumption of indirect talks regarding the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers from Gaza.
The request came in a statement put out by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Hamas said that it might be ready to move forward on this issue, in an indication of its weak negotiating position, analysts say.
Political sources said that Hamas responded to the Israeli offer, in light of the increasing pressures it faces, as well as the receding margin of manoeuvre of its mediators in advancing the prisoners’ issue.
Last April, Hamas chief Yahya al-Sinwar announced his movement’s readiness to offer Israel a “partial counterpart” in exchange of the release of Palestinian detainees, as part of an initiative described by the militant movement as “stemming from humanitarian considerations.”
Observers say that Barghouti’s imprisonment is actually an advantage for Hamas, as the militant Palestinian faction sees Mahmoud Abbas as a weak figure who will not offer it serious competition as head of its rival Fatah movement. It is in its interests that the status quo continues so that it can hope for a landslide victory in next elections.
Others believe that Hamas is seeking to take advantage of Barghouti’s release from prison within its deal with Israel to highlight its influence on Palestinian politics. Besides, it has nothing to lose as it is not interested in vying for the position of president. Its main goal remains to dominate the parliament, the legislative council as the main lever of the executive authority.
Palestinian affairs expert, Tariq Fahmy, said that Hamas wants to send a message to the international community that its decisions are not determined by its interests as a faction. Vis à vis the Palestinian public, it is seeking to reinvent itself so as to achieve its objectives in any future elections, whenever they are held, and try to boost its political clout if the various parties agree to form a government of national unity.
Talking to The Arab Weekly, Fahmy added that Barghouti’s release would mean that he will be a strong contendant against President Mahmoud Abbas, especially if he allies himself with Kudwa. The same would happen in the case of an alliance with the head of the Democratic Reform Movement, led by Muhammad Dahlan. That would have significant fallouts within the Fatah movement and spark complications that are likely to indirectly serve Hamas’ interestsy.
He pointed out that Hamas seeks to avoid the mistakes it made when finalising the deal for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, when it limited the exchange to its members only, before Israel arrested a large number of them again. It now seeks to make the expected deal more credible at the domestic and international levels.
Barghouti’s popularity may help Hamas expand its popular base in the West Bank after it was able to impose its control over the Gaza Strip, in addition to the fact that the Bargouti himself does not have major differences with Hamas at either the political nor military level.
Palestinian political analyst, Imad Omar, pointed added there is unanimity among Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on including Barghouti on the list of detainees to be released. Thus Hamas is forced to accept that, Baragouti’s case especially has become a Palestinian national concern separate from the long-running disputes between the various factions.
Omar told The Arab Weekly that Hamas is said to have included a number of veteran detainees on its list, such as those sentenced to life terms and capital punishment and belonging to different factions. Most notable among these is Ahmed Saadat, secretary-general of the Popular Front. Therefore Hamas’ goal remain primarily political as it tries to convey the impression of an inclusive and non-factional organisation.