Middle East

Prisoner Swap Undercuts Palestinian Authority

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The release of more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is being trumpeted as a major victory by the Islamist Hamas faction that has held Shalit for five years. The boost for Hamas has sidelined the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas, who was just recently feted for his efforts to win Palestinian statehood recognition from the UN. The political shift leaves Palestinian supporters of a two-state solution feeling isolated. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Israeli and Palestinian officials say a major prisoner swap will take place later this week. Family, friends and supporters of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit will celebrate his release as early as Tuesday. Hundreds of joyous reunions will also be held in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as Palestinian prisoners come home. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Jerusalem that the exchange has political implications, boosting the fortunes of the Islamist Hamas movement and leaving the Palestinian Authority on the sidelines.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hanan Barghouthi is working to finish up the olive harvest in Al-Kobar, a West Bank village a few miles north of Ramallah. It's looking like a good year for olives, she says, and they're rushing to finish before her brother Na'El and her brother-in-law Fakri are released after 34 years in prison. She says the whole village will be decorated for their return. And while the West Bank is nominally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the green banners of Hamas will be proudly displayed.

HANAN BARGHOUTHI: (Through Translator) They have been putting their pictures up. They have been making posters. They have been making very white banners. And most importantly, green banners, the flag of Hamas. They are the ones who released them and they deserve to have their flags up.

KENYON: The late afternoon sun glints across the valley, where the red roofs of a Jewish settlement are visible. Hanan says it was an attack that left at least one settler dead 35 years ago that landed Na'El and Fakri Barghouthi in jail. And the lesson she's taking away from this Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap is precisely the one Israeli critics of the deal have warned about: that Hamas's hardline resistance to occupation does work and the Authority's efforts to negotiate a two-state solution do not.

BARGHOUTHI: (Through Translator) Saying in Arabic, whatever was taken by force will only be retrieved by force. And, of course, Hamas's strategy's the correct one because it is the strategy of resistance.

KENYON: Israel and its Western allies, and recently the Palestinian Authority as well, have labored to convince Palestinians that Hamas's strategy is not the correct one; that violence only diminishes the chances for Palestinian statehood. Ramallah-based analyst Azzam Abu Bakr says the Netanyahu government, by negotiating with a group it labels a terrorist organization, has confirmed what many Palestinians believe: that Hamas can neither be crushed nor ignored.

AZZAM ABU BAKR: (Through Translator) It is a shift. It's a qualitative change that has taken place in the relationship. This prisoners exchange deal showed that Hamas and Israel sat together and negotiated.

KENYON: Abu Bakr expects high-level Hamas and Palestinian Authority meetings soon in a new push for a unity government.

FAYZEH MASLAMINA: (foreign language spoken)

KENYON: In a small apartment in Al-Ram just north of Jerusalem, Fayzeh Maslamina showers sweets into a serving bowl and serves coffee to visitors who have come to ask about her husband, Ali, who's spent most of the past three decades in an Israeli jail cell. Her spirits are high but tempered by previous experience with prisoner swaps.

MASLAMINA: (Through Translator) My husband came out in 1985 in the prisoners exchange then, and then he was put in jail gain. He missed his mother's funeral. He missed his father's funeral. He missed all the growing up of his children.

KENYON: Like Hanan Barghouthi, Fayzeh Maslamina makes no claim of innocence for her husband. She says that among other things, she shot an Israeli soldier and two people suspected of collaborating with Israel. The celebrations to be held this week on the Israeli and Palestinian sides will be tinged with apprehension, with critics wondering if this prisoner swap is only setting the stage for more violence. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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