Contextual Content

A "game changer" in the Middle East

Within days Israel is rumored to complete its long standing negotiations
with HAMAS over a prisoner
exchange. In return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier the al-Qassam
Brigades kidnapped while the
Israeli army invaded Gaza in 2006, Israel is said to agree to release 980
Palestinian political prisoners.
Toufic Haddad, Palestinian-American journalist based in Jerusalem,
speaks to Lia Tarachansky about
the significance of this exchange. He says among the released, Israel
may free Ahmad Sa’adat
(Saadat) and Marwan Barghouti, popular leaders whose freedom will
change the political game in the
Palestinian leadership.

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Story Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER, TRNN: On Wednesday, tens of thousands of settlers gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem. They protested his decision to partially and temporarily limit their construction on the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlers vowed to continue building regardless of the government’s decision, and many scorned the leader for supposedly conceding to US pressure. Earlier that day, the Palestinian village of Ni’lin held its own demonstration. Located just inside the Green Line, the village has been protesting every Friday for a year and a half, because the segregation wall annexes much of its land for the Jewish-only settlement of Modi’in Illit. Several people have been killed during these protests when the Israeli army used rubber bullets, live ammunition, and high-velocity teargas canister launchers against the stonethrowers. On Wednesday, villagers commemorated the outbreak of the first intifada 22 years ago by marching to the wall. Israeli soldiers crossed the barrier onto the village’s olive groves and launched teargas canisters at them. Within days, Israel is rumored to conclude its long-standing negotiations with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier the Al-Qassam Brigades kidnapped while Israeli forces raided Gaza in 2006. The Goldstone Report that investigated war crimes in the recent war on Gaza noted that Shalit is a prisoner of war who should be allowed observation by the Committee of the Red Cross. Hamas has refused. The report also noted that Israel’s declaration that the siege on Gazza will continue until his release was considered collective punishment�a crime of war. For his release, Israel is rumored to have agreed to free 980 Palestinian prisoners of all factions. The Real News spoke to Toufic Haddad, Palestinian-American author and journalist, based in Jerusalem, about the significance of this prisoner exchange.

TOUFIC HADDAD, COEDITOR, BETWEEN THE LINES: A prisoner exchange would be a real game-changer if it actually is able to take place. I’m less optimistic that it will. The fact is it would be the first time that a political faction would be able to win such a concession out of Israel. We’re talking about right now, supposedly, according to recent press reports, 980 Palestinian political prisoners would be released. That has never taken place before in the past. It’s unprecedented, at least in terms of the demands for the prisoner release coming from a Palestinian faction that’s located in historical Palestine. There were other prisoner exchanges that took place when the struggle was taking place in Lebanon or whatnot, but we’re talking about Hamas holding an Israeli military soldier in Gaza, making demands from Gaza.

TARACHANSKY: Aluf Benn is the diplomatic affairs correspondent for Haaretz. The Real News spoke with him in Tel Aviv.

ALUF BENN, SENIOR COLUMNIST, HAARETZ: Gilad Shalit, a prisoner of war in the hands of Hamas in Gaza, has been a symbol to Israelis, a symbol of the nation’s willingness and ability to care for soldiers and for people it sends to serve the country. And Israelis in general are willing to pay a heavy price to bring their soldiers back. Even when they’re dead, Israel has paid a considerable price in releasing prisoners and in exchange deals for dead bodies of soldiers.

HADDAD: There are other elements of it that are unprecedented, too, and would be really important if they actually took place. It would essentially release large sections of the Palestinian leadership. We’re talking about, of course, Marwan Barghouti, who is one of the most popular figures inside Fatah in the Occupied Territories; Ahmad Sa’adat, who is the head of the Popular Front, which is a leftist wing or faction, who holds considerable legitimacy and respect among all Palestinian factions and could potentially inject the Palestinian left into the political game in a way that they haven’t really been in before. We’re talking about the release of the remaining Palestinian Legislative Council members who are being held by Israel who were arrested to try and cripple the Palestinian Hamas from being able to implement a kind of governance project after it won the elections. And then we’re also talking about field leaders and militant leaders who engaged in the struggle against Israel and were imprisoned. And these are major, major�this has major, major significance on the scene.

BENN: There’s a debate in Israel: to what extent should the government release very tough terrorists? We’re talking about people with the blood of hundreds of people on their hands, the masterminds of the worst terrorist attacks, the worst atrocities in Israel’s recent history, and it’s a very tough decision. But the way I see it, in the end of the day, the core value of bringing back those whom we sent to the battlefield will prevail. So it’s more a matter of details, or, you know, finalizing the details, rather than of principle.

TARACHANSKY: Among its demands, Hamas has been insisting that Israel release Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader with Fatah and a presidential candidate in the 2006 elections. Barghouti is the founder of Tanzim, a split-off group of Fatah that took up armed struggle. He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.

HADDAD: Marwan Barghouti’s probably the most popular Palestinian leader in the occupied territories and within Fatah. He’s a young, tested kind of field leader from a village outside of Ramallah. He’s considered�he’s not tinged by the kind of corruption and self-promotion that took place under Oslo so much. When the intifada broke out, he was very quickly on the frontlines of demanding an end to any negotiations and demanding the implementation of international law. That would be the only thing that Palestinians should be negotiating: how to implement the UN resolutions. And he also advocated for a resistance with Israel.

BENN: Marwan Barghouti is more of a political symbol. His distant cousin, Abdullah Barghouti, who’s responsible for the death of hundreds, is a far worse security risk when he’s at large and, you know, allowed to do whatever he’s doing than Marwan Barghouti.

HADDAD: He brings with him a kind of popular credibility, a street cred, if you will, to the game, and also one that is less sectarian, I think, than the way the Palestinian Authority’s been running things in the previous game. Like, he’s interested in unifying the Palestinian position. He has pretty good relations with all factions, including Hamas. Hamas basically sees this, the prisoner release, as a way to reassert the stream of resistance. [Arabic phrase] is what it’s called in Arabic, basically. And they know many other political factions, including people from in Fatah, have those same interests and desires, because they don’t feel that negotiations under the current asymmetrical conditions, the power balance, can really achieve very much.

TARACHANSKY: Various Israeli officials have indicated conflicting messages regarding Marwan Barghouti’s release. Negotiators have suggested that if he is released, he will be sent into exile, something Barghouti himself has rejected. Regardless, the release of much of the Palestinian leadership would indeed change the game in the Middle East, as from here it is becoming obvious that the right and the left, both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, have little faith left in the so-called peace process.