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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War
The agreement for a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was shaped by the political situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. But now, the politics on the ground could change moving forward.
FOCUS: Israel-Palestine WarIsraelGeopoliticsSourcesFRANCE INTERfeatured-postPalestinian TerritoryCountries
November 23, 2023
PARIS — If the terms of the hostage-for-prisoners agreement between Israel and Hamas are strictly adhered to, we're set to witness scenes filled with emotion on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
There is obviously nothing in common between civilians, sometimes very young children, taken hostage on October 7 on Israeli territory, and prisoners convicted for activities, sometimes violent, related to the Palestinian nationalist movement.
What's shared instead is the central place these scenes are bound to occupy in the collective imagination of both peoples and, therefore, the political impact it will carry.
The contexts are also very different. The fate of the approximately 240 hostages in the hands of Hamas weighed heavily in the Israeli government's decision to accept a pause in its massive retaliations on the Gaza Strip. The families of the hostages marched on Jerusalem, mobilizing Israelis in the streets and in the media. Surveys show that they succeeded in rallying a majority behind their demand to prioritize the release of hostages over the government's military objectives.
All the political benefits of these releases will undoubtedly go to Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to the terms of the deal when he realized the extent of the phenomenon. It took him time to meet the families, and he rejected an initial agreement offer a week earlier. Persisting would have been a mistake; Israelis, who already blamed him for the October 7 fiasco, would not have forgiven him.
With his choice to strike a deal for the hostages, Netanyahu changed the course of this war. Whatever happens, it will no longer be the same.
At a demonstration in Sacramento, California, U.S.
Symbolism of freed Palestinian prisoners
On the Palestinian side, it's a different story. Prisoners are a central element of their cause, a strong link between families beyond political factions. There are 7,200 political prisoners in Israeli prisons, and virtually every family has had one of its members detained at some point. The release of at least 150 prisoners will, therefore, have a significant impact on Palestinian society.
All the political benefits of these releases will undoubtedly go to Hamas, which orchestrated them. And that's the trap into which the Islamist movement lured Israel with its October 7 attack. Israel did not make a mistake in banning any celebration in East Jerusalem and the West Bank upon the release of the prisoners. Typically, the return of a prisoner is celebrated by an entire community, but Israel wants to avoid anything that would appear as a success for the Islamists.
Indeed, Hamas would probably win elections in the West Bank if they were held tomorrow. This highlights the challenge facing Western powers that want to revive the Palestinian Authority — "revitalize" in Joe Biden's words. Mahmoud Abbas, its president, appears powerless against Israel when Hamas secures the release of prisoners, a cruel contrast.
Beyond the significant human aspect, there is a strong political stake in this hostage-for-prisoners exchange. It will weigh heavily in the continuation of a war that is asymmetric by definition.
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