News that Gilad Shalit will return to Israeli hands in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners was celebrated on the streets of Jerusalem and in Gaza. Videos showed jubilant scenes in which Palestinians rejoiced with the knowledge that family, friends and community members would finally be released from Israeli prisons. Al Jazeera reported Palestinians pouring onto the streets in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza where celebratory gunfire and car horns could be heard all around. Indeed Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, reiterated this positive tone, saying in a television address from Damascus, “this is a national achievement that we should be proud of." A similarly positive line is being taken by various mainstream media outlets, with the prisoner swap deal being described as a “landmark” deal, and a demonstration of a “new face of Hamas”.
But there is actually very little to celebrate. The mainstream media, Mr Meshaal, and some of the Palestinian public may put a positive spin on it, but the reality is that this is at best a misguided Hamas decision and at worst a deep betrayal by Hamas. The logistics of the exchange have been detailed, with 450 Palestinians released in the first phase of one week, and another 550 freed in the second phase. What has received far less attention is not only the fact that 203 prisoners will be deported, with 40 barred from Israel and the Occupied Territories completely, but also the thousands of Palestinian prisoners that remain in Israeli prisons, including hundreds of children.
Significantly, the figure who represents the most hopeful sign that a genuine peace agreement could be reached, Marwan Barghouti, will remain incarcerated. Barghouti’s continued imprisonment is a clear sign of Israel’s lack of commitment to the Middle East Peace Process, since his release would breathe new life into the Palestinian struggle. Barghouti has become a symbol of hope for many Palestinians and, alongside this popular support, also holds sway in the upper echelons of the Palestinian leadership, being referred to by some as “Palestine’s Mandela.”
The subject of his potential release is a divisive one within Israeli circles. Some members of the Knesset, including former Defence Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, have called for him to be part of a prisoner exchange, but others, who seem to have won the argument on this occasion, believe he should never walk free. He has been called a “terrorist” by those in this anti-Barghouti camp, but they forget one important point: he is part of what Mandela referred to as “the long walk to freedom”, a national liberation struggle. His actions must therefore be viewed within this context. Whether he was involved in stoking violence during the intifadas or not, and even behind bars, Barghouti remains the best prospect for peace.