The recent capture of an Israeli soldier has brought about high expectations in Palestinian society for a release of some Palestinian prisoners in exchange.
The issue of imprisonment and the situation of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel at the moment has always been one of the most vital and sensitive issues for Palestinians.
The issue is so crucial because those who have suffered the consequences of imprisonment, whether directly or as relatives of prisoners, constitute a vast majority of society. Secondly, prisoners are also perceived as the most credible members of society because of the sacrifice they have made to resist the occupation.
Finally, these prisoners include many leaders that were popular in their own communities. A recent indication of how important prisoners are is the prominence and importance attached to the Prisoners’ Document both by the political elite and the public.
To both the Palestinian public and leadership, the Israeli reluctance to exchange some of those prisoners for their soldier is hard to understand. Indeed, Israeli arguments on this matter have only reinforced the conviction among most Palestinians about the racist bent of official Israeli thinking.
It should be understood that the Israeli attitude vis-a-vis an exchange does not come from a consideration of the issue at hand. In strategic Israeli thinking, the current Israeli behavior in Gaza is an attempt to deal with a wider range of security and political issues, and the captured soldier and Palestinian prisoners are only one component.
Security-wise Israel seems to have thought that by withdrawing and disengaging from Gaza Strip settlements, Gaza would be neutralized as far the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was concerned, busy with its own problems. Israel could then worry only about the West Bank.
The developments in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal showed that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza perceive themselves as part of one people and the territory as part of the same land. The attempt at disconnecting one from the other bears serious consequences for Palestinian aspirations for independence and statehood.
On a political level, it seems Israel has ended the "trial period" of the new Palestinian government led by Hamas. During the period between Palestinian elections and the capture of the Israeli soldier, Israel did not clearly indicate whether it wanted to dismantle this government or encourage it to moderate its position vis-a-vis Israel.
Israel was tempted toward the latter option by Hamas’ adherence to the ceasefire. Now, Israel seems to be confronting the new Palestinian government and maybe all Palestinians with one of two options: either the Hamas-led government will survive but adapt itself to Israeli requirements on political and security levels; or an end will be brought to that government and with it, the Palestinian Authority.
That thinking seems to coincide with conclusions within Hamas that remaining in a state of limbo between governing and resisting is not tenable in the long or medium terms. Hamas has found itself in a position in which it has to decide whether it wants to proceed as a government and pursue its objectives by political means or remain a resistance movement that has the liberty and room for maneuver that governments do not have.
The question now is whether Israel has a post-collapse scenario in mind with all its political, security, administrative and humanitarian consequences. It’s unclear as well, whether the international community, which to a certain extent is responsible for the creation of the PA and its survival, is ready for such a scenario.
Hamas can live with it. As the last party to be elected by the Palestinian people, Hamas will maintain its legitimacy with or without the PA. No other party will be able to form a new government or get a vote of confidence without Hamas, and the movement will always have the leverage of being the last elected government and parliament.
While the prisoners’ issue is momentarily at the top of the agenda and the focal point of political statements, it seems that this is primarily for public consumption. But regardless of underlying motives and agendas, the prisoners’ issue is a strong constraint when it comes to a solution to this current crisis, a reflection of the natural significance of the issue within Palestinian society. In a recent public opinion poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a vast majority, 68.8 percent, insisted that there could be no release of the Israel soldier without an exchange.
This crisis is going to continue for a relatively long period and will coincide with a gradual decline in the role, presence and functioning of the PA. A phase of fierce confrontations will further feed the radicalization process in both Israeli and Palestinian societies unless an active and decisive international intervention halts the deterioration.