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Israel, Hamas prisoner exchange talks further mired Netanyahu in a Catch-22 amidst mounting pressure

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By James M Dorsey

 

Think that the heart wrenching images streaming out of the Gaza Strip suggest that Israel has Hamas over a barrel? Think again. Talks in Europe and in Cairo suggest otherwise. The talks stalled after Hamas insisted that it would not engage in prisoner exchange negotiations unless Israel halts fighting and agrees to a ceasefire. US President Joe Biden admitted as much, declaring that “there is no expectation at this point” of a renewed prisoner exchange. Even so, Israeli media reported that talks had not broken down.

 

A Qatari delegation was in Egypt to discuss options. David Barnea, head of Mossad, was expected to meet Qatari officials to revive indirect contacts with Hamas.”We don't fight just because we want to fight. We are not partisans in a zero-sum game. We want the war to end,” Husam Badran, a member of Hamas' political bureau, told The Wall Street Journal. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Badran said an “exchange deal can still be reached. But it cannot be reached without an end to the aggression. We are prepared for an ‘all for all deal.'” All Palestine hostages for all Israeli hostages.

 

Hamas derives its leverage from its ability to ignore Gazan voices blaming it for the October 7 carnage and willingness to endure Israel's relentless, indiscriminate bombing on the back of the Strip's population. To be fair, with Israel determined to continue the war until it destroys Hamas, the United States' increasing criticism of Israel's conduct of the war, and the community's focus on getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, the group's strategy may prove the most effective.

 

Working in Hamas' favour is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is caught in a Catch-22. Netanyahu cannot ignore mounting domestic pressure to prioritise the release of hostages rather than the destruction of the group. At the same time, Netanyahu risks a break-up of his ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative coalition if he makes concessions to Hamas in negotiations.

 

The Prime Minister fears that a break-up could accelerate his political demise. The majority of Israelis blame him for the intelligence and operational failures that enabled Hamas' October 7 attack. The risk of a break-up increases because the majority of Israelis in Hamas captivity are military personnel.

 

Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad base their demand for an ‘all for all' prisoner exchange on the template of past swaps involving Israeli soldiers. An ‘all for all' deal would hand Hamas a political victory. In 2011, Hamas freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians. In 1984 Israel exchanged 4,500 Palestinians for six Israelis held in Lebanon by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and two years later 1,150 for three Israelis captured by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

 

An ‘all for all' deal would involve the controversial release of Palestinians convicted to long-term or life sentences on charges of murder. The deal would potentially strengthen Hamas' position in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestine Authority about resolving their long-standing differences and forming a united front in preparation for the day guns fall silent in Gaza.

 

Hardline Israeli opponents of an ‘all for all' deal note that among the prisoners released in exchange for Mr. Shalit was Hamas' Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar. Israel accuses Sinwar of masterminding the October 7 attack. He tops Israel's most-wanted list. Addressing a recent security cabinet meeting, Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi argued that it took the US military ten years to locate and kill Osama bin Laden. Critics note that negotiations rather than military operations have led, so far, to hostage release.

 

Hamas and Islamic Jihad last month exchanged more than 100 captives, primarily women and children, for 240 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. This was during a Qatar-negotiated week-long truce. Israel's military campaign has produced primarily dead hostages killed in bombings and fighting and only one captive liberated alive.

 

Pressure on Netanyahu mounted after Israeli soldiers last week killed three bare-breasted male hostages waving a white flag as they escaped Hamas captivity. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have sought to step up the pressure with the release of of three more hostages allegedly killed in the fighting and several elderly captives.

 

To avoid the pitfalls of a swap involving Israeli military personnel, Israel, so far unsuccessfully, wants to limit the next round of exchanges to the release of 40 hostages, 19 women and two children still in captivity as well as older men in need of medical care during a one-week truce. A limited exchange would allow Netanyahu to claim he is doing everything possible to get hostages released. It would also provide him with cover to comply with US demands that the military transition into a low-intensity campaign in Gaza that would require less troops on the ground, involve more targeted operations, and reduce the risk of civilian casualties. (IPA Service)

 

Northlines
Northlines
The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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