Hamas manoeuvring complicates efforts to secure new prisoner swaps
by James M Dorsey on 20 Dec 2023 0 Comment

Israel wasn’t slamming the door on renewed indirect prisoner swap negotiations with Hamas when it this week barred David Barnea, the head of Mossad, the country’s foreign intelligence agency, from travelling to Qatar to explore possibilities for renewed exchanges. Instead, it was manoeuvring for greater leverage in potential talks and expressing doubts about whether Hamas could deliver a second temporary truce in the Gaza war that would make further prisoner swaps possible.


Israeli media reports suggested that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant opposed the trip in the belief that Hamas’ Qatar-based leaders had lost contact with the group’s Gaza leadership after it failed to respond to Qatari proposals.


Exiled Hamas leaders, Khaled Mishaal and Ismail Haniyeh, served as conduits to their Gaza counterparts in talks in November that produced a week-long truce during which Hamas released 84 Israeli and 24 foreign hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.


Some Israeli sources suggested that Israel, despite pressure from relatives of the 138 hostages kidnapped by Hamas in its October 7 attack on Israel to prioritize the release of the captives, may not want to negotiate at a time that the United States is pressing it to adapt its military strategy to ensure fewer Gazan civilian casualties.


Mr. Barnea was stopped from travelling a day after US President Joe Biden met in the White House with relatives of American nationals held hostage by Hamas. Israel’s negotiating position was weakened by a US intelligence assessment concluding that half of the air-to-ground ordinance Israel has dropped on Gaza since October 7 consisted of unguided rather than precision-guided munitions.


The report challenged Israeli assertions that its military sought to spare or minimise civilian casualties. Israel was quick to counter the assertion. “There is no such thing as ‘dumb bombs.’ Some bombs are more accurate. Some bombs are less accurate. What we have is mostly pilots who are precise. There is no chance that Israel’s air force or other military units fired at targets that were not terror targets,” said Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a member of Israel’s security cabinet.


The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry puts casualties at close to 19,000. The ministry classifies all casualties as civilian. It is unclear whether that number includes Hamas fighters or whether the ministry simply does not publish that figure. Even if fighters were included, the vast majority of casualties, including 7,700 children, are civilians. Israel puts the number of fighters killed at about 7,000, including ten battalion and brigade commanders. Hamas is estimated to have 30,000 fighters.


Qatar appears to see a second round of prisoner swaps as a possible way of turning a limited and temporary deal into something that could lead to an end in the fighting and create the basis for negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


This week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog poured cold water on peace talks and the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel any time soon. “In order to get back to the idea of dividing the land, of negotiating peace or talking to the Palestinians, etc., one has to deal first and foremost with the emotional trauma that we are going through and the need and demand for full sense of security for all people,” Mr. Herzog said.


In wanting to negotiate a second round of prisoner exchanges, Qatar reportedly proposes it involve not only women and children but also men. Last month’s swaps exclusively involved Israeli women and children and foreign nationals held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian women and children incarcerated by Israel.


In a move that could influence strained relations between Hamas and the Western-backed, West Bank-based Palestine Authority, Qatar reportedly suggested that Marwan Barghouti, a popular member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah group be included in a potential exchange. Widely seen as a potential successor to 87-year-old Mr. Abbas if Israel releases him, Mr. Barghouti was convicted to five cumulative life sentences in prison on murder charges.


Israel accuses Mr. Barghouti of founding the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of Palestinian armed groups in the West Bank. In 2006, Mr. Barghouti authored from prison a National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners that was co-signed by Hamas. The document endorsed Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli occupation, implicitly including armed resistance, while appearing to envision a two-state solution.


Exiled Hamas leaders’ apparent willingness to re-engage in prisoner swap negotiations reverses their earlier refusal to further discuss exchanges until Israel halts its assault on Gaza. The turnaround fits a pattern of convoluted and contradictory statements by Hamas leaders as well as Iranians suggesting that militants and their backers are manoeuvring for the day the guns fall silent in Gaza.


The manoeuvring started when Iran signed on to a statement by leaders of Arab and Muslim-majority countries gathered in Riyadh last month endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. A month later, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian appeared to roll back the Iranian endorsement. He told the Doha Forum this week that rejection of a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was Iran and Israel’s only agreement.


Iranian political scientist Nasser Hadrian noted that “there are three views in Iran, which are reconcilable. One is a referendum. They argue that Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims should decide the future of that country. Number two is whatever Palestinians decide is fine for Iran… And there are people in Iran who think a two-state solution is the best solution.


Making a point of condemning Hamas’ targeting of civilians in its October 7 attacks alongside tackling Israel for its conduct of the war, Mr. Hadrian argued that in the end Iran would accept realities on the ground. “Iran may not like the Arab peace initiative, but at the end of the day we are going to accept it. With UAE and Israel, we did not like it. Same thing with Bahrain, same thing with Azerbaijan, same thing with Turkey, but we have a relationship with all of them. It’s the same thing with Saudis. We don’t like it, but we are going to accept it,” Mr. Hadrian said.


Mr. Hadrian was referring a 1982 Arab peace plan that proposes recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and various Muslim countries that have maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, or in the case of Saudi Arabia, are considering recognising the Jewish state. Iran’s manoeuvres occurred against the backdrop of contrasting Palestinian and Iranian responses to Iranian support for Hamas. Iran’s rising popularity among Palestinians is in stark contrast to sympathy for Israel among ordinary Iranians, according to Mr. Hadrian.


A recent survey concluded that 41 per cent of Gazans and 30 per cent of West Bankers were satisfied with Iran’s role in the Gaza war. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have fired missiles towards Israel and attacked Israel-related shipping in the Gulf scored double those numbers.


Iranians’ response is diametrically opposite. “In the whole world there are two peoples who might agree with Israel. One is the Israeli people; the other is a good portion of the Iranian people. The reasons are clear. It’s not the Israelis or the Palestinians per se. It is rather a reaction to our own government… If our government is going to support the Palestinians, then our people are going to oppose the Palestinians… It is a reaction to our own government in Iran,” Mr. Hadrian said.


Iranian manoeuvring also constitutes an attempt to facilitate efforts to ease harsh US sanctions imposed in response to Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has effectively frozen billions of dollars it had promised to release as part of a prisoner exchange deal because of Iranian support for Hamas. “The regime’s focus is increasingly on securing its hold on power, not fomenting chaos abroad,” quipped The Economist.


Much like Iran, exiled Hamas officials, in an exercise of one step forward, two steps backward, signalled that recognition of Israel was not beyond the pale. Hamas political bureau member Mousa Abu Marzouk suggested in an interview in Doha that the group would recognise Israel as part of burying its war hatchet with the Palestine Authority. The move would ensure, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, that the group would be part of any post-war Palestinian administration of Gaza.


“You should follow the official stance. The official stance is that (Palestine President Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO) has recognized the state of Israel. We are seeking to be a part of the PLO, and we said we will respect the PLO’s obligations,” Mr. Abu Marzouk said.


The PLO, a coalition of Palestinian factions other than Hamas, recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism in 1988. In exchange, Israel acknowledged the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.


In a similar vein, Mr. Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau vaguely suggested that the group would accept talks that could lead to a “political path that secures the right of the Palestinian people to their independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.” Mr. Haniyeh did not clarify whether he was referring to a one- or two-state solution, but insisted that any plan for post-war Gaza that did not involve Hamas would be a “delusion.”


Once published, Mr. Marzouk appeared to soften or walk back his remarks, insisting they had been “misunderstood.” What he wanted to say, Mr. Marzouk suggested was that “I confirm that the Hamas movement does not recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation, and does not accept giving up any of the rights of our Palestinian people, and we affirm that the resistance will continue until liberation and return.”


The exiled Hamas officials’ convoluted exercise came as Palestine Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described Hamas as “an integral part of the Palestinian political mosaic.” He suggested the group could join the PLO if it accepted its commitments, including recognition of Israel.


The exiled Hamas leaders’ recent moves may be one reason for a breakdown in communication with Yahya Sinwar and other Gaza-based leaders. Israeli media reports suggested that Mr. Sinwar was furious after learning that the exiled leaders were discussing post-war arrangements with the Palestine Authority.


Courtesy The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey


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