Many winners, few losers in deal to end Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike
Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are each playing their cards to preserve the relative silence in Gaza and the West Bank.
The agreement that brought the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strike to an end on Monday, alongside a decision to return 100 bodies of Palestinian terrorists buried in Israel, as a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, were less about possible progress in peace attempts as much as they were about an Israeli effort to preserve the relative silence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Despite the fact that peace negotiations aren't likely to restart, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel are all interested in getting rid of anything that could pose a threat to stability in the region. And so, while the Middle East continues burning (Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and others), and on a day that was once considered highly likely to draw violent confrontations in the Palestinian territories, the Shin Bet and prisoner's leadership managed to reach a deal that essentially had many winners and few losers.
The Shin Bet has emphasized their significant "achievement" in the deal: having the Palestinian prisoners sign that they will not return to terrorist activities within the prison walls. One does not need to be a security analyst to understand that despite the deal, at least some of them will repeatedly engage in terrorist activity.
Their real achievement lies elswhere: the fact they could neutralize the ticking bomb of 1,500 hunger-striking prisoners. It is true that the majority of the Palestinian public has remained apathetic and that the West Bank has not seen tens of thousands of people taking to the streets, protesting in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Nevertheless, the combination of "Nakba Day" with the hunger strike that symbolized the Palestinian struggle – and included some who had already reached a state of poor health – was likely to lead to a political explosion, especially if one of them was to die in prison.
In response to these developments, the Palestinians in the West Bank are sufficing with symbolic demonstrations only, to commemorate the Nakba Day, or "catastrophe," which mourns the establishment of the State of Israel. Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, on his part, is launching a marathon especially in lieu of Nakba Day.
'Victory' for Prisoners
The prisoners' agreement constitutes a sort of achievement for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, too. The Palestinian security services played a significant role in negotiations that led to the deal, and they will earn their popularity accordingly among public opinion. While Hamas did not lead the strike – it was led by the Islamic Jihad – the Israeli agreement to allow family members from Gaza to visit prisoners does constitute another step toward disintegrating the Israeli policy of segregating the West Bank and Gaza.
Since Hamas' win in the January 2006 elections, families in Gaza have not been allowed to enter Israel. And here Israel is to some degree acknowledging (delayed as it may be) the new leadership in Gaza. Bit by bit, a coordinated effort is being formed between both sides of the fence. Most of it is being done under the table, like the secret establishment of the Hamas security services in Gaza, which works to prevent rockets from being launched toward Israel. Sometimes it is done on the table, like in the case of commercial activities at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. There is no longer an all out blockade on the Gaza Strip, except for limitations on exports, which are, too, eroding with time.
The main winners in Monday's deal are the inmates themselves and their leaders in prison, and accordingly, the headline article on Ma'an News Agency quoted an official describing the agreement as a "victory" for the prisoners and their families. The cessation of the solitary confinement policy marks an achievement not only for the prisoners, but also their leaders – among them, imprisoned Fatah commander Marwan Barghouti, who was involved in a solution to the crisis, and this time, unlike during the second intifada, he did so without using violence. That was despite the fact that most of the Fatah prisoners did not even participate in the strike.
And another word on Egypt. In ten days from now, the first round of presidential elections will end. The candidates are still busy making harsh declarations against Israel, especially the moderate Islamist candidate Abd Al-Mun'im Abu Al-Futuh. And despite that, Cairo was party to forging Monday's agreement. The general Egyptian intelligence, as was the case in the Shalit deal and in other cases, turned into a serial neutralizer between Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, whether it was to end a prisoners' hunger strike on the eve of Nakba Day, or ending yet another round of violence in Gaza.