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Shai Baitel Headshot

Worth Versus Value: Hamas and the Case of Gilad Shalit

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In the Middle East the worth of a transaction does not necessarily reflect its value. So one might wonder why it has taken five years to conclude the negotiations about the terms of release of Gilad Shalit, who now is set to be freed tomorrow. Shalit was abducted from Israel in June 2006 in a cross-border raid, and imprisoned by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where he has never been allowed a visit by the International Red Cross.

Timing is the crucial component to understand the 'why now.' The ongoing Arab Uprising and the subsequent change of conditions have made possible the announced deal brokered by Egypt and Germany. Hamas never trusted the Egyptians and their mediation role, but were unable to avoid the fact that, as the regional power, they needed to be at the table. Deposed President Hosni Mubarak and former Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman were routinely accused of being Zionist puppets, acting more in Israel's than Egypt's favor.

Therefore, the interim military government led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the growing and visible strength of the Muslim Brotherhood eased the nerves of Hamas and ameliorated the above suspicions they previously had about Egypt. Hamas was even more comfortable when they witnessed the German negotiator's role diminished. While German mediation was successful in the case of Hezbollah and the 2008 prisoner release in exchange for the return the of the bodies of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, its power of influence waned in the Shalit case at the expense of Egypt, to the frustration of the hard-working and diligent Gerhard Konrad.

But the new regional conditions have Hamas facing an interesting juxtaposition. While Hamas leaders feels increasingly comfortable about the 'New Egypt' and its shifting power structure they feel increasingly uneasy about the unfolding situation in Syria, with a civil war and eventual toppling of the Assad regime becoming a more and more likely scenario.

For decades the headquarters of Hamas have been operating out of Damascus, calmly and steadily, shielded by the gentle wings of the Assads. The appeal of the location was, among others, the absence of any political pressure, the freedom of open communication as well as regular and convenient transportation links to Tehran, home of their financial, logistical, and ideological supporters. The deteriorating situation in Syria, where to say that President Bashar al-Assad is in big trouble is an understatement, has dramatically changed that.

As a result of the tensions in Syria there has been a growing disenchantment between Hamas and their benefactors in Iran over the past two months. In a bold move, Hamas defied Tehran's demand to publicly support Assad, through statements and arranged protests in support of the Syrian regime. They simply could not bring themselves to go out and rally for their hosts and their Alawite military leaders, who killed and tortured Sunni protestors, the fellow faithful of the equally Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Iran reacted swiftly to this insubordination and halted the wiring of their monthly financial support to Hamas. This, in turn, led to thousands of unpaid Gaza employees on the Hamas payroll.

In the face of these frosty relations there is good reason to believe that a potential offer by Egypt to have Hamas relocate their headquarters to Cairo would be embraced by their leadership. No longer welcome in Damascus, it's not out of the question that they will be able to set up shop on the Nile. While politically risky, considering Egypt's continued desire to maintain good relations with the West, in particular with the United States, its longtime supporter, nothing seems impossible anymore in a region where Egypt is redefining itself and the Muslim Brotherhood is stronger than ever.

In the Palestinian arena, it is unavoidable to realize that Hamas sees its power and influence grow while the fortunes of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority (PA) have been dwindling. Hamas could not be more delighted that Abbas's gamble of seeking Palestinian statehood at the United Nations did not play out as planned. At best, a General Assembly resolution will make 'Palestine' an Observer State, but not a full-fledged member, as Abbas had hoped. As of right now, he over-promised and under-delivered. At the same time, Hamas's rule of the Gaza Strip is without question. The lesson for the Palestinians seems simple: Diplomacy fails while 'Resistance' prevails.

The same mode of operation was applied by Hamas in the Shalit case: It is the 'Resistance' that delivered the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and not any diplomatic agreement between the PA and Israel. It is worth recalling that the Palestinian prisoners have always been on the agenda of past peace negotiations.

The deepening ties and renewed alliance between Hamas and 'New Egypt' has also further weakened Mahmoud Abbas by strengthening Hamas through the lifting of Egypt's blockade of the Gaza Strip and increased freedom of movement of people, goods and deadly weapons between the Strip and Sinai.

It is Hamas that is the dominant Palestinian group in the dramatic regional shift. They have been the true warriors of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology, developed by Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna. And now an initial 477 Palestinians prisoners released by Israel, followed by another 550 in two months. Through 'resistance,' in this case the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and demanding a high price for his release, they have been able to deliver the 'true goods' to their people and emerged time and again victorious. Hamas. Not Abbas's Palestinian Authority.

In the Middle East a transaction should not be measured by its worth rather than by its value. Hamas has won much more than the release of over a thousand Palestinian prisoners. It has won strength and influence, not only among the Palestinians, but also regionally. Following consistently their ideological roots, they have marked another milestone. It is a sad reality that Hamas has been expanding its influence at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, still the only legitimate entity accepted by Israel, Europe, and the United States.