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Friday, August 29, 2008

Shalit's 22nd birthday, and freedom further than ever

Yesterday was Gilad Shalit's 22nd birthday. Unfortunately, his chances for freedom seem to be getting dimmer.

While Israel has been offering more and more in exchange for Shalit - relaxing its stand on releasing murderers in exchange for him - Hamas has kept demanding more. While Hamas originally demanded 450 prisoners for Shalit, today it is being reported that this demand has increased - to 1500.

There are a number of reasons for this. In recent months, Hamas has had its own, sometimes violent infighting, and no clear leadership. Some factions have been in favor of negotiating in semi-good faith while others have taken a harder line. And, as Khaled Abu Toameh reports in today's Jerusalem Post, it appears that the more radical are winning:
The results of a recent election held for one of Hamas's key decision-making bodies are likely to hinder efforts to free kidnapped IDF soldier St.-Sgt Gilad Schalit, sources in the Gaza Strip told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

The secret ballot was held about 10 days ago for the Shura (Consultative) Council, which is made up of Hamas's senior political and religious leadership and is tasked with discussing all important issues.

The sources told the Post the vote resulted in a major victory for representatives of the "young guard" in Hamas, most of whom are affiliated with the movement's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam.

The sources described the victory as a "coup," pointing out that the newly-elected members were far more radical than those who were ousted from the council.

"The Shura Council of Hamas is now dominated by warlords, thugs and militiamen," one source said. "The new members are not as educated as their predecessors.

Another source described the vote as a "turning point" in the history of the Islamist organization. "From now on, the armed wing of Hamas is expected to play a bigger role in the decision-making process, he said. "The political leadership of Hamas has definitely been weakened."

Given the fact that Schalit is being held by members of Izzadin Kassam, some of whom are now represented in the Shura Council, Hamas is unlikely to soften its position in the talks on a prisoner exchange agreement.

A Palestinian academic closely associated with Hamas told the Post he expected the new council members to endorse a tougher approach in the negotiations over the release of Schalit.
The "young guard" is more likely to see Israeli concessions in Shalit negotiations as proof of weakness and a reason to demand more.

In addition, the prisoner swap with Hezbollah where Israel gave up its most despicable prisoner plus others in exchange for corpses emboldened Hamas to up the ante for Shalit.

Moreover, the "calm" - rather than build "goodwill" towards a Shalit release as Israel intended - has strengthened Hamas even more, as its leaders are not worried about being targeted from the sky. This reduced pressure on them makes them less likely to want to negotiate, showing once again that "goodwill" gestures are supremely counterproductive.

Unfortunately, it does not look good that Shalit will be released by negotiations. We can only hope that the Shin Bet is taking advantage of the "calm" to figure out where Shalit is and how the IDF can rescue him, because that looks more likely than a successful prisoner exchange.