Hamas Official Discusses Prisoner Swap

The Palestinian group Hamas was feted Tuesday in the Gaza Strip for having secured an agreement from the Israelis to free more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid more than five years ago. Nearly half of those Palestinian prisoners were released Tuesday, and those remaining are slated for release in two months. Osama Hamdan, a senior official from the Hamas international relations department, tells Robert Siegel the move is a victory not only for Hamas, but for all Palestinians.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a talk with an official of Hamas. Osama Hamdan is a member of Hamas who's based in Beirut and a senior official in the international relations department of the organization.

Mr. Hamdan, this swap agreement with Israel, in your view, does it signal any broader improvement, whatever, in Hamas' relationship with Israel, or is it simply a one-off event about these prisoners and Gilad Shalit?

OSAMA HAMDAN: Well, it may be either a one-time event or make - it may be more than this. It depends on the Israeli side. The big question, whether Israel is ready, really, to accept the rights of the Palestinians, is ready to give them their lands, their cities, their villages. This is the big question.

I believe two decades of the peace negotiations would be (unintelligible) if they do not give a good answer for the Palestinians. So I think now, the one who is supposed to answer this question is the Israelis side, not the Palestinian side.

SIEGEL: But you - if I hear you right, you're saying this demonstrates that Hamas can deliver things that the Fatah leadership - that the leadership now in Ramallah - has not been able to deliver. Is that what you're saying?

HAMDAN: What has happened is a Palestinian victory, not Hamas victory, although Hamas has done this. The fact is when the Israelis became ready to achieve agreement, it took place. I'm not sure about how Fatah managed the negotiations, but I believe Fatah managed the negotiations on a very wrong basis.

SIEGEL: The Israeli prime minister said it was only at the very end that Hamas agreed to conditions that prisoners from the West Bank would not return to the West Bank. They would go to Gaza. Some would be deported to other countries. Was that a tough condition for Hamas to accept?

HAMDAN: Well, some of the prisoners were released to their houses in West Bank, 110, and part of them will be deported together for one year, another part for two years. Only 40 were asked to leave the Palestinian territories. This is not for the Palestinians. But if you compare that to being in the jail for three decades or something like this, I think any prisoners would take the second choice to live with his family.

SIEGEL: Did Hamas make any undertaking, through the Egyptians to Israel, that prisoners who were being released in this swap would not go and take part in plotting violent attacks against Israelis, or was that never introduced as a condition?

HAMDAN: Well, the Israelis did not did not talk about this condition. They did not ask for that as a condition, so there was nothing about it. And no one can accept a condition not to resist occupation. That doesn't mean he will go to fight next day. But it means that he has a right, according to the international law, to resist occupation as any free nation or any nation under occupation.

SIEGEL: To what degree did it affect Hamas that your situation in Damascus might be shaky right now, given the condition of the Assad regime, and there's been a change of regime in Cairo? How much did that affect your organization's view of its dealings over Gilad Shalit?

HAMDAN: The change in Egypt helped, in fact. They were more close to the issue. They were more (unintelligible). But I think there was no real effect of what's happening in Syria because, in fact, 15 of the deported prisoners will be received by the Syrian authorities, and they have welcomed that. And I think it shows that the relations are - they are not like some people are expecting.

SIEGEL: Mr. Hamdan, how would you describe the role of Egypt in this - in mediating the swap?

HAMDAN: Well, their role was very good. I think they were balanced. They do not work for Hamas. And to be sure, and we did not ask for this, only brokered balanced and fair, I think we can achieve a good result. And that's what has happened in this case.

SIEGEL: Mr. Hamdan, just one last point. You've said there were conditions that were tough for Hamas. There were conditions that were tough for the Israelis. The head of the Israeli security service, the Shin Beit, said something very similar the other day: We - no, we had to give up things, they had to give up things.

We're hearing a rational mediation described. Do you come away with that with any encouragement whatever that perhaps there might be more rational, productive negotiations through mediators or otherwise in the future?

HAMDAN: Well, I have to say that we in Hamas are rational. The Palestinians, we in Hamas, we want our rights. If that happens peacefully, well, that's fine. If it didn't, we are ready to resist and to fight in order to have those rights back.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Hamdan, thank you very much for talking with us today.

HAMDAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official based in Beirut, Lebanon. And elsewhere in our program today, you can hear an interview with Israel's ambassador to the United States.

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