After prisoner swap, Palestinians weigh rival strategies

October 29, 2011

An air of quiet satisfaction permeates the parliamentary offices of the militant Hamas movement in this city, the seat of the Palestinian Authority and base of the rival Fatah faction.

Israel’s release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners this month in an exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip by Hamas for more than five years, has had a powerful effect across the Palestinian territories, amplifying Hamas’s message of armed confrontation with Israel.

“People come up to us on the street and tell us what a great achievement this is,” said Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader and legislator who was released in August after six years in Israeli jails. “It’s indescribable, an extraordinary response. People say: ‘God bless you. We have no one but you.’ ”

The aftermath of the prisoner release is a moment reminiscent of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The pullout, which followed persistent attacks by militants on Israeli soldiers and settlers, was celebrated by Hamas as a vindication of its strategy of armed conflict with the Israelis.

In similar fashion, the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah touted Israel’s troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year presence as a retreat brought about by its assaults on Israeli forces.

The mass prisoner release came shortly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s trip to the United Nations in September to seek membership for a Palestinian state, a move that won him a surge of popular support.

The two events crystallized the contradictory strategies advocated by Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas: diplomacy on the one hand and violence, or “resistance,” on the other — the two poles between which Palestinians have shuttled during their decades-long conflict with Israel.

As they absorb the impact of the prisoner exchange, Palestinians are again assessing the effectiveness of both strategies.

Qaddura Fares, a veteran Fatah leader and chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Association, acknowledged that the swap had strengthened Hamas’s claim that only force can wring concessions from Israel.

“We, the people of negotiations, have little evidence to persuade people that the opposite is true,” Fares said. “People say: ‘You’ve been negotiating since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, and look where we are today. The [Israeli] settlements are now outside our windows. That’s the result.’ ”

“Our message is weak, unconvincing,” Fares added. “We need a diplomatic achievement.”

Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst who directs the Palestinian Authority’s Government Media Center, conceded that the prisoner release had undercut Abbas’s message of ending Israeli occupation through negotiations.

“This weakens the argument for diplomacy and strengthens the argument for resistance in the public debate, but to what extent, it is still too early to say,” he said. “I don’t know how long-term the effect will be, because people have less and less confidence in the two approaches. Neither the peaceful approach nor resistance is taking us nearer to ending the occupation. Both are not working.”

At the Qalandiya refugee camp south of Ramallah, Muhammad Badr, a university student, said the choice was clear to him. “Negotiations have been going on for years, and they haven’t achieved anything like the honorable deal Hamas got with the prisoner exchange,” he said. “What was taken by force can only be recovered by force.”

But Samer Hamdan, a salesman, said Palestinians had to adjust their strategy to changing conditions. “Sometimes resistance is necessary, and sometimes negotiations — back and forth,” he said, adding that he supported both the U.N. bid for statehood recognition and seizing Israeli soldiers to exchange them for jailed Palestinians.

Ayman Lubbad, a university lecturer originally from Gaza, said Palestinians should pursue parallel tracks.

“We need both,” he said. “We need negotiations, and we need to continue to struggle to take our rights.” That struggle, he added, could take the form of popular mass protests, not necessarily armed attacks.

The tactics used in the Shalit prisoner swap were “okay,” Lubbad said, and could remain an option in the future, “but at the same time we will continue to negotiate.”

“The power is on the Israeli side,” Lubbad said. “We cannot fight forever.”

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