Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip is spurring hope for the safe return of an Israeli soldier kidnapped nearly a year ago by the fundamentalist Islamic group, even as it issued a terse warning to Israel not to harm its leaders “or forget about Gilad Shalit.”
Shalit, then a 19-year-old army corporal, was captured last June 25 during a cross-border raid and smuggled into Gaza. He has been held by Hamas and two other organizations involved in the attack, in which two other Israelis were killed.
Israeli officials and family members are hoping that with Hamas now in control of Gaza, having prompted their rivals in Fatah to flee to the West Bank following a bloody conflict last week, Hamas alone will be able to decide Shalit’s fate.
“There is a new situation and I hope Prime Minister Olmert will know how to take advantage of it,” Noam Shalit told journalists at a graveside ceremony Sunday marking a year since his son was captured and his son’s comrades were killed.
It would be in Hamas’ interest, experts argue, to make a deal now.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Gilad Shalit and for Alan Johnston for sure,” said Lt. Col. (Res.) Anat Berko, a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, referring to the BBC reporter who was abducted in Gaza in March.
“I think Hamas wants to show that they are the boss, that they can make things happen and they are the ones with the key.”
Analysts say that Hamas first must prove to nervous Gazans that it can deliver on a practical level by providing basic items such as gasoline, food, electricity and water. This would mean securing even a minimum level of cooperation with Israel, which could be bolstered significantly by the release of Shalit.
Second, making a prisoner swap with Israel would boost Hamas’ popularity in Gaza as well as the West Bank. The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a hugely emotive one on the Palestinian street, where almost every family has a relative or friend in an Israeli jail.
Hamas is likely to want to make a deal on prisoners before Israel makes one with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a move that would strengthen Abbas and Fatah’s standing instead of that of Hamas.
Hamas, said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University, “is in the process of being maligned and criticized in an unprecedented way because the picture that dominates the international press is of the Hamas member with a mask, in a terrorist uniform, with a gun in his hand. On the other hand, they have never been in a position of having full responsibility for the daily lives of 1.5 million people.”
Ezrahi said that “the rewards of releasing Shalit would not be higher in the future. I think Hamas right now after its military victory is definitely in the mood to try to cut political losses and public image losses they are suffering. I think they should have a very compelling motivation to release Shalit now.”
In the West Bank, Fatah spokesman Samir Nayfa suggested to the Palestinian media that a deal between Hamas and Israel could happen, even in unexpected ways.
“Hamas might announce that Shalit disappeared amidst the state of chaos in Gaza Strip, or they might announce that he ran away,” he said. “Hamas might go to the extreme of announcing that Fatah people helped Shalit run away.”
At the same time, Hamas issued a terse warning on Saturday about Shalit.
“If any of Hamas’ leaders are harmed, Israel can forget about Gilad Shalit,” a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, told reporters.
The daily Ha’aretz cited security sources reporting that the Egyptians, who had been mediating with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to broker a deal for Shalit, might resume efforts soon if the situation in Gaza does continue to wind down. They had stopped in recent weeks as the fighting between Fatah and Hamas intensified, the sources said.
David Baker, an Israeli government spokesman, told JTA that Shalit’s release is still very much at the top of the Israeli agenda.
“Israel will not relent in its efforts ! to allow for the safe return for our soldier Gilad Shalit.” he said. “These efforts continue unabated.”
Observers say that if Hamas does strike a deal to swap prisoners with Israel, it also would break Israel’s self-imposed taboo on talking to Hamas, even if it is through the Egyptians. This would also be in Hamas’ advantage.
Berko, the Herzliya center researcher who recently published the book, “The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers,” said that despite Israel’s desires to strengthen the secular Fatah movement over Hamas, the time may have come to realize it can only influence things so far.
“I think this is not the time to deal with strengthening or weakening sides. We saw Israel cannot predict or create all the processes in the Middle East. We saw it in Lebanon and we are seeing it all over the world,” she said, referring to the surge of Islamic fundamentalism of which Hamas is a part.
“As time passes it will become harder to secure Shalit’s release. Now something has changed and we have to take the opportunity and speak with the devil,” she said.