Reports about a pending prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas are gaining momentum. However, according to Palestinian sources in Ramallah, there are still major obstacles in the way, particularly within Hamas.
The motivating factor behind the current discussions was panic among the families of prisoners who sought to gain their release from Israeli prisons in light of the threat caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But what is complicating the position of Hamas is the involvement of several mediators, each with a different agenda, as well as internal competition among Hamas leaders.
The leading mediator is Egypt, helped by a veteran German mediator who is already familiar with mediating between Hamas and Israel. Their partner in Gaza is Yahya Sinwar, head of the Gaza Shura council, the overarching political and decision-making body of Hamas. His only interest is Gaza. He doesn’t care about the West Bank or the wider interests of the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe or the Middle East.
According to Ramallah sources, not everyone in the Shura council is on the same page with Sinwar. Competing leaders include Fathi Hamad, who represents the northern part of Gaza, while Sinwar is from the south. There is also Mahmoud al-Zahar, who represents Iranian interests for the benefit of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He maintains close relations with Hamas offices in Beirut that are connected with Hizbullah.
The Hamas Politburo, based in Qatar, is connected with the global outreach of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet today, the Brotherhood is interested in Europe. They want to “conquer Rome” from within, especially through a coalition with EU socialists known as the “Red-Green” alliance. They are not interested in the jihadi, “resistance” rhetoric of Hamas because in Europe they have to operate as “moderates.” This is the essence of a “political Islam” that Hamas in Gaza cannot identify with because of its jihadi, “resistance” character.
Ismail Haniyeh is the head of the Hamas Politburo. Because he could not accommodate Sinwar’s agenda, he had to leave Gaza to assume his position in the Politburo in Qatar. However, he discovered that the previous “deposed’ chairman, Khaled Mashal, is still the boss because of his close relations with the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. An additional Hamas rival is Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey. Both Mashal and al-Arouri are from the West Bank, and the Gaza leadership made it clear to them long ago that they had no political future in Gaza.
Sources in Ramallah report that both Haniyeh and Mashal have made several recent phone calls to the PA leadership in Ramallah, but they were devoid of real content. The impression is that the contacts occurred at the request of Qatar in order to improve relations with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. They discussed the long forgotten Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the topic of new elections. Yet Abbas is not interested in either issue. On one occasion he refused to accept the call from Mashal and passed it on to PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.
Why is Qatar interested in improving relations with Abbas? Because there was a secret decision in Ramallah not to let Qatari cash enter the PA, only through the formal budget, but Qatar refused. So the Qatari money goes only to Gaza now.
Egypt, through Sinwar, wants to collect the political rewards of a prisoner deal, while Qatar, together with Turkey, wants to spoil such a deal, as does Iran. So, as my sources tell me, as long as Sinwar cannot convince his colleagues, who are influenced by distant powers, he cannot cut a deal that Israel could accept.
In Shura meetings, Sinwar’s adversaries pinned him to conditions that are difficult for Israel to accept. They include the release of all those who were re-arrested after having been released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal in 2011. But those who had been re-arrested had returned to terrorism, especially in the Hebron area where the military wing of Hamas is strong.
Another condition relates to the release of aged prisoners who have spent many years in jail and are in a high-risk group due to corona. Hamas is demanding that Israel release faction leaders such as PFLP Secretary-General Ahmad Sa’adat, who is serving a 30-year sentence for his role in the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in Jerusalem in 2001. Hamas is also demanding the release of West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who commanded the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the Second Intifada. Barghouti was convicted of murder and was given five life sentences. But we assume that Hamas will not insist on this.
The very fact that Hamas is conducting the talks is a problem for the PA in Ramallah, which claims to lead the Palestinians. In addition, the extended Barghouti family is now in opposition to Ramallah because they claim the PA has not tried hard enough to release Marwan. The result is that the Barghoutis and Hamas are coming closer together and if Hamas is able to achieve his release, this may create serious problems for Ramallah.
The same may be said about Sa’adat, whose PFLP is now in an open dispute with the PA over funding.
So while there are talks about a possible prisoner exchange deal, there is no single, strong Hamas leader in Gaza who is free to make such decisions.