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Gilad Shalit deal boosts Hamas, but also reveals group's weaknesses

Hamas scored a victory with the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli solder Gilad Shalit. But its concessions to Israel show fragility.

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Palestinian women rest in front of a poster depicting Palestinian prisoners as they take part in a protest calling for the release of their sons held in Israeli jails, inside the headquarter of the International Red Cross in Gaza City on Thursday. The parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit folded their protest tent on Wednesday and Palestinian families awaited word on whether their loved ones would go free in a prisoner swap agreed by Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Hamas is hoping for a boost in domestic popularity after securing the freedom of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for returning Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but many also see the historic deal as a sign of the Islamic militant group’s recent vulnerability.

The mass prisoner release, expected to begin next week, is being hailed by Hamas as a dividend of its policy of armed uprising against Israel. It is also stealing the spotlight from its Fatah rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose campaign for statehood recognition at the United Nations has been enthusiastically embraced by many Palestinians.

But Palestinians noticed that Hamas conceded to Israel on several key points, indicating it's bargaining position has been weakened by years of economic blockade by Israel and international political isolation. In addition, it faces a new threat: an uprising against its patron, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is struggling to keep his hold on power.

"This will boost will boost Hamas’ popularity in the Palestinian street after years of stagnation because of the [Israeli] siege... They are promoting this as a victory for resistance," says Mkhaimer Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza City’s Al Azhar University. Despite that, he added, "the deal is not as good as Hamas was hoping for."

Vindication for its tactics?

The deal is the most significant agreement that Israel and Hamas have ever reached, and the lopsided ratio of 1,027 Palestinians to one Israeli recalls a prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah several years ago, putting Hamas in good company.

Israel agreed to free Palestinians from East Jerusalem and Arab citizens of Israel, marking the first time a Palestinian group won clemency on behalf of prisoners whom Israel considers to be under its own civilian authority.

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The agreement has been hailed as a victory for Hamas’s "resistance" fighters. Militant leaders vowed to continue to kidnap more Israelis as bargaining chips to free more of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

"There’s a problem for the PA when Israel releases prisoners only as a prisoner swap, rather than a [political] compromise," said Ashraf Ajrami, a PA official in an interview with Israel Television in the hours after the deal was announced. "This gives an incentive that only through [swaps] we can release prisoners."

Behind the victory is weakness, some say

The day after the deal was announced, prompting much celebration, Palestinians began learning of Hamas’s concessions. The swap will not include high-profile militant leaders demanded in earlier rounds of negotiations, such as Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, and several senior members of Hamas’ military wing. Hamas was also forced to accept Israeli demands that many of the released prisoners be deported from the West Bank to Gaza or abroad.

Many Palestinians say that Hamas and Israel inked a deal now, after years of failed negotiations, in order to cut down Mr. Abbas, who has been hailed as a hero in the Palestinian Territories after applying to the UN last month for member-state status.

Nashat Aqtash, a pollster at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank who advised Hamas-backed candidates in parliamentary elections five years ago, believes the group’s motivations go beyond that.

The uprising in Syria has destabilized that country, putting the Damascus political office of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on shaky ground and spurring speculation that Hamas is looking for a new base. Its reluctance to take sides in the uprising have hurt its image among Palestinians, Mr. Aqtash said. who They see Hamas's decision to remain neutral as choosing to side with a repressive regime

Gaza’s isolation and repressive rule have also frustrated many Gazans. Only 10 to 14 percent of Palestinians say they would vote for Hamas, Mr. Aqtash says. "Their rule is not very successful, they have committed so many mistakes and people are fed up with their dictatorship," he said. "Even Hamas supporters are fed up."

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