Palestinian prisoners

Israel has released 250 (carefully selected) Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster Mahmoud Abbas.

The ex-inmates are almost all from Abbas’ Fatah group, with a few from smaller organisations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. None are from Hamas — releasing a Hamas prisoner would have defeated the purpose of the exercise.

All the men signed a document promising not to take part in violence against Israel.  I imagine a good many probably will — it’s a good sign when you read quotes like this:

Amjad Namura, 24, of Hebron, who was freed after serving half of a four-year sentence, said he was happy to comply with any agreement signed off by Abbas.

“We are with the decisions of the president no matter what. Whatever Fatah tells me to do I will do it,” he said.

There are always one or two nutjobs/fanatics in every group so some will have to be watched very carefully, even if none of those released were actually involved in attacks on Israelis.

It is a solid gesture from Israel to shore up Abbas, who has seen the Palestinian territories split in two. Unfortunately, it won’t give him the momentum to take power back from Hamas, which is governing a de facto state in the Gaza Strip.

What the release — and the looming early legislative and presidential elections — will do is cement the divide. Hamas won the parliamentary elections last year and in all likelihood will simply ignore any new vote. Ismail Haniyeh has yet to acknowledge having been replaced as Palestinian prime minister, so why should his party colleagues acknowledge they’ve lost their seats?

Calling new elections, which is an understandable enough course of action, runs the risk of legitimising the break-up of Palestinian territory. This is dangerous because although Gaza cannot economically survive on its own, that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to exist outside the control of centralised authority.

Both sides have repeatedly said they do not want to split. Unfortunately reality and ambition are often two very distinct entities. A commenter on my International Analyst article raised the possibility of a multinational force going in to Gaza, but that is a very remote possibility.

Abbas is about to take one of the biggest gambles of his life. For the sake of peace in the Middle East, let’s hope it pays off.

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