“I hope this deal will help us reach peace between the Israeli and Palestinian sides and there won’t be military conflicts between us and the Palestinians,” said Gilad Shalit, upon being released by Hamas after five years of captivity.
I am pleased that Israel and Hamas, through negotiations, recognized each other’s existence. I am pleased that Shalit is home, as are Mohammad and Ahmed, and the promise of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners being released.
Consider, though, an old Levantine adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a cynical political philosophy that creates strange bedfellows. The Hamas-Israeli exchange reflects that cynicism: not just a deal to free one Israeli soldier for over a thousand Palestinians but a calculated political realignment.
Hamas and Netanyahu are natural bedfellows. Both fear and despise the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas. Both know that if a civil society develops, combined with non-violent resistance to occupation and recognition of a Palestinian state ever captures international imagination they will both be losers. Both fear losing power more than they wish for peace.
Hamas was at risk of being internationally isolated while losing the popular support of its young people for violent, Islamically-based resistance. By successfully negotiating with Netanyahu, Hamas can assert that its confrontational model succeeded.
Marwan Barghouti, the most important Palestinian held by Israel, was never part of the deal. Hamas got the prisoners it wanted. Israel gave up the prisoners it feared least — violent criminals are never the threat that “ideas” are — and the Palestinian people never got a chance to get the charismatic Barghouti, whom many believe could be the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.
Israel’s struggles are both internal and external. Pressured at home by increasing militancy of right wing extremists, the country also fears losing legitimacy internationally for its occupation and opposition to Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu is the big winner. By embracing Hamas as his negotiating partner he emasculated moderate and non-violent Palestinian factions. He consolidated his political authority and can now move forward with what I believe is the true goal of his ruling coalition: the elimination of the dream of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
The exchange doesn’t ameliorate the plight of Gaza’s Palestinians. Hamas rules. Gazans wallow in penury. Borders stay closed. The future holds no hope. Since Shalit’s capture in 2006 more than two thousand Gazans have been killed, most during Operation Cast Lead, the 2008 Gaza war that happened in part because of the failure to get Shalit released. During those same years 23 Israelis have died either in Gaza or as a result of attacks launched from there, including nine Israeli soldiers (four from friendly fire) and four Israeli citizens.
Much has been made of the fact that Israel is willing to give up so much for one man. While the exchange of one Israeli for 1,027 prisoners may seem disproportionate, more than 5,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons, from teenaged stone throwers to political prisoners to murderers. Israel is a powerful nation state with total control; on the other side is an occupied people, with no army or police acting as deterrent to the rampant colonization, daily intimidation, humiliation and imprisonment inflicted on its citizens.
Palestinians see resistance as their only option, and that sometimes takes the form of violence against civilians, which is criminal and totally unacceptable. What is resistance to one is terrorism to others, and conflict re-escalates.
If there are outbreaks of Palestinian violence (we dare not speak of settler violence) or attempted kidnapping of Israelis the response will be brutal, and colonization will continue. Yet, when circumstances are calm, colonization continues.
If the long-term goal for both Israelis and Hamas was the emasculation the Palestinian Authority then nothing changes. The progress by the PA to try to develop a civil society, and engage in non-violent resistance to occupation is in jeopardy as Palestinians recognize that it was Hamas that got loved ones released.
There are few hands that don’t have blood on them. Arafat, Begin, Sharon, Shamir, Hussein, all have histories that their biographers bury in footnotes. Ataturk, Mao, Mandela, brought nations together through both vision and violence. For Palestinians who still have loved ones in prison there is bitterness and disappointment. Israelis who see the murderers of loved ones released feel anger and betrayal.
Israel has all the power. Negotiate with Palestinians as neighbors and equals rather than treat them as a defeated, insurgent enemy that needs to be intimidated. When violent extremes on both sides become isolated, reason prevails and peace becomes possible.
Yet, in spite of skepticism that this was a cynical, sordid swap designed to bolster politicians and harden ideological positions, I witness light being cast upon darkness.
We are all cousins, brothers, sisters: War, violence and betrayal wins no peace. Too many hearts and souls have formed shells, isolating emotions and feelings, denying love, impairing judgment and reason. Trust. Reach into the traditions of faith and hospitality that have insured your survival for so long to find reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” — Khalil Gibran.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.