Prisoner exchanges a defeat for Israel

July 26, 2008

"I return from Palestine, only to go back to Palestine. I promise families in Palestine that we are coming back, me and my brothers in the resistance", newly released Samir Kuntar, one of the longest serving prisoners in Israel, told a jubilant crowd of tens of thousands in Beirut on July 17.

The celebrations welcomed back four other Lebanese prisoners as well as the remains of 199 resistance fighters exchanged in a prisoner swap between the Lebanese resistance organisation Hezbollah and Israel. In return, Hezbollah handed over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured in 2006 that became the excuse for Israel's subsequent war on Lebanon.

Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze, was a 16-year-old Palestine Liberation Front fighter when he was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel for killing a police officer, a civilian and a child (responsibility for the last two killings he strongly denies). His release breaks Israel's long standing rule not to release prisoners with "Israeli blood on their hands".

Israeli defeat

The exchange was a product of the humiliating defeat suffered by Israel in its war on Lebanon. The deal was opposed by a large number of military chiefs and Israeli politicians from different parties. According to an article posted on Electronic Intifada on July 16 by Lebanese political scientist Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Even its chief architect, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has referred to the deal in terms of 'sadness' and 'humiliation'".

However, the release has become a unifying factor in Lebanon, which in May appeared close to civil war. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora vowed to make the day a national holiday.

The deal is also a political victory for Hezbollah, which led the defence of Lebanon against Israeli aggression in the 2006 war. By negotiating with Hezbollah rather than the Lebanese government, Israel has in effect recognised it as a legitimate political force.

Saad-Ghorayeb quoted Hezbollah's former energy minister Mohammad Fneish, who argued that "when assessing future dangers we must agree that the resistance fulfills a necessity in its readiness, the experience of its fighters and commanders".

Media frenzy

While Israel suffered a humiliating defeat, a media frenzy has focused on the visit to the region by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Since arriving in Israel on July 23, Obama has made all the statements of support that are mandatory for a leading US politician.

Obama declared his "unshakable commitment to the state of Israel" during a visit to the town of Sderot that has come under rocket fire from Gaza and hailed Israel as a "miracle" after a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. He also committed to a two-state solution while emphasizing the need for security for Israel.

The only change in previous US policy was Obama's stated willingness to enter "unconditional" dialogue with Iran. In a turn-around, this was also agreed to by most Israeli politicians and military figures.

In unconditional support for Israel, Obama is falling into line with US imperial foreign policy positions. Since the victory to Hamas, which won support for continued resistance to Israeli occupation, in 2006 Palestinian Authority elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the US government has sought to bolster the moderate Fatah forces led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel and the US have been backing the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank over the Hamas government in Gaza since 2007, when Abbas unconstitutionally dissolved the elected Hamas-led government. (Hamas have remained in control of Gaza since their troops ousted Fatah-backed warlord Muhammad Dahlan in June that year.)

On June 24, at a international donors conference in Berlin, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged countries to allocate uncommitted funds from their existing pledges to bolster the Fatah-controlled PA. According to a June 24 AFP report, US$242 million was committed to be handed over to the PA.

According to a June 24 Jerusalem Post article, Rice is also planning to convene a trilateral meeting between Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and PA chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei. The purpose of the meeting would be to produce a document tying the PA and Israel into commitments in line with the December 2007 Annapolis peace talks.

Status quo

Despite the media circus very little has changed on the ground. The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that began on June 19 continues to hold, despite occasional strikes against civilians and targets within Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces and some rockets fired from Gaza.

As part of negotiating the ceasefire, Israel promised to ease its blockade of Gaza, which has extended to essential supplies of fuel, food and medicines. While the flow of goods has increased slightly, Gaza still faces massive shortages of these items.

A July 23 Xinhua article reported that according to the UN Relief Works Agency operation director in Gaza, the amount of fuel reaching the population is still less than 25% of what had been allotted before the siege. "The situation in the Gaza Strip continues to deteriorate and the number of poor people continues to increase one month after a truce has been reached."

Also, Israel continues to increase the number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and has approved the building of 20 new Israeli settlements.

However, the Lebanon prisoner exchange has encouraged Hamas, which upped it's exchange price for the release of Galid Shalit — an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 — from the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners to 1450.

However, Israel continues to demand the release of Shalit as a pre-curser to further lightening it's blockade.

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