Many unexpected events happened this year in the Greater Middle East region, but an agreement between Hamas and Israel was maybe the least probable one. Now that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped five years ago by Palestinian militants, is free in exchange for more than a thousand convicted Palestinians, we have to analyze what factors were needed for this policy change and what does Hamas’s new approach to Israel mean to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Since day one of the imprisonment of Gilad Shalit, who was 19 years old when he was kidnapped, there was great pressure on the Israeli government to bring the soldier back home. The parents, the Israeli society, but also the Jewish and Zionist communities outside Israel lobbied for his release. Also international actors tried to persuade Hamas to set Gilad free, or at least to give him the basic rights of a prisoner of war, which he was refused, like letting the Red Cross supervise his imprisonment. At least four factors had to change to make this deal possible and shift the Israeli-Hamas relations into a new direction. I will examine these factors in the following paragraphs.
Regarding the Israeli government’s willingness to accept a rather high price for only one soldier, we have to understand the effect of the summer protests in Israel. During a wave of mass demonstrations a large part of the Israeli society showed their fury against the rising prices of accommodation, food, childcare etc. and that the gap between rich and poor in one of the world’s most developed country is reaching a dangerous level. The Netanyahu government had to calm down the public rage by freeing Gilad. Israel’s military and social spirit depends on the idea of not letting even one soldier behind. With a system of general conscription, the leadership’s negligence would seriously damage the morale of the armed forces and also of the “home front” – meaning parents and partners of the soldiers. Although most Israelis think that the price Israel paid for Gilad’s freedom was too high, there are only few voices saying that the deal was a mistake, since this claim would go against the core values of the Israeli society.
The second reason why Israel gave in to Hamas’s demands follows the logic that since the Palestinian Authority is not willing to continue the peace process by negotiation and pursues a unilateral strategy of declaring a state in the UN, Israel empowered Hamas by making it the “savior” of the Palestinian prisoners convicted for acts of aggression in Israel. This move has meant to be a punishment for Abbas for not cooperating with Israel and it worked since Hamas’s popularity is on the rise even in the West Bank since the deal. Not everyone is happy about this result, mainly the highly influential security establishment (meaning high ranking officials of the Israel Defense Forces and Ehud Barak Minister of Defense), since they are interested in a strong PA in the West Bank because this is the key to the stability in the territories. This is why there is currently a battle on the Israeli political scene over the necessary gestures Israel should show towards Fatah in order to rebuild its shaken influence in the West Bank. Apparently, the army supports a greater extent of help for Abbas, while Netanyahu and Israeli FM Lieberman are more interested in the punishment and less concerned about Abbas stepping down in return – which would lead to chaos in the PA leadership.
On the other hand, the Israeli willingness would meant nothing without Hamas’s eagerness to strike a deal with Israel. Here it is important to note that the breakthrough happened a result of great effort of the Egyptian intelligence establishment which is interested in a moderate Hamas on its borders. We have to understand this new mutual interest between Hamas and Egypt. Hamas had a great dilemma during this summer when other even more radical militant groups from Gaza started rocket attacks against Israel’s southern cities. Hamas had the option to escalate the conflict (which it did by joining the attacks for a while) or to suppress the other groups and therefore in a way take Israel’s side. Hamas choose the later alternative; it got into a ceasefire agreement with Israel, for which it had to take the punishment from its former mentor Iran, which greatly reduced its support to its former ally. Hamas had to find another great patron and at the same time ease the Israeli security inspection rules in the Gaza Strip, which would pave the way to a better economy in the area with Hamas needing less support from outside to maintain its rule. In addition, Hamas was interested in portraying itself as the one who can get results from Israel in opposition to Fatah, which is currently loosing the diplomatic battle in the UN and all great powers try to push them back to direct negotiations with Israel.
Egypt was quickly willing to step in and spend a great amount of energy to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas. A few months ago, the new Egyptian military junta experienced the chaos that Islamist and mostly Bedouin criminal groups could stir up in the region, when it had to start an armed campaign in the Sinai to take back the control over the peninsula. All signs showed that the tunnels used for smuggling between Gaza and Egyptian territories are the main channel, where trained militants can get into Sinai from their bases in Hamas ruled Gaza. In addition, the Egyptian leadership watches closely the struggle between Iran and Turkey for the heart and resources of the Arab countries. Emerging from the “Arab Spring” Egypt must oppose this invasion of non-Arab forces. Thus it is now embracing Hamas after Iran maybe unintentionally gave an opportunity for Egypt to extend its sphere of influence and to stabilize the Sinai Peninsula. The important question is how far would Egypt go to counter the Iranian and Turkish incursion into Arab territories, since currently Syria and Iraq are turning into real battlegrounds and Saudi Arabia is too weak to fight off the two rising powers of the Middle East.
Currently we have a situation when we can clearly see an emerging race for dominance in the Middle East between three sides — Iran, Turkey, and the shaky “Arab coalition” led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia; with the Jewish state caught in the middle. Israel has its own dilemma when it has to deal with the moderate Fatah and the radical Hamas. The Gilad Shalit deal showed these lines of conflict between the actors of the region in a new light and therefore the story of one kidnapped soldier has turned into a milestone in the Middle Eastern power struggle.