Often, a prisoner exchange is an early step in de-escalating a severe, protracted conflict. It is a mutual recognition of the adversaries’ concerns and a way of easing them, a way to build trust and confidence among them, and sometimes a pathway to more comprehensive peacebuilding agreements. The question is whether this will prove to be the case with the agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government to release a little more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, held in Israel, in exchange for the release of the Israeli Staff-Sgt. Gilad Shalit, seized and held in captivity by Hamas.
Admittedly there are several reasons to doubt that this exchange will contribute to the transformation or even moderation of the Israeli-Hamas antagonism. Having yielded to this deal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may feel compelled to demonstrate his toughness in facing Hamas. Hamas leaders may claim that their fierce resistance has been triumphant and vindicates persisting in their hardline policies toward Israel, including the use of kidnapping in order to gain leverage during any future negotiations. Some of the released Palestinians may seek vengeance against the Israeli Jews and conduct violent attacks. Some Israeli Jews who oppose the exchange and any easement of hostility toward Hamas may violently attack Palestinians.
Nevertheless, it is possible that the exchange can result in a moderation of the Hamas-Israeli hostility in several ways. Severe grievances each held against the other have been reduced; they were a significant barrier to any improvement in relations. The exchange demonstrated that negotiations between these two parties, which otherwise have not recognized each other, are possible for them. Hamas leaders may go on to enlarge upon their readiness to accept a two-state solution, if that is the will of the Palestinian people. Israeli government leaders, recognizing the changing Middle East, may move to strike an agreement with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. The visible joy at reunions on both sides may increase the recognition by people on each side of the humanity of those on the other side. In addition, nonofficial groups from the two camps may believe that it is feasible to explore other possible small agreements.
It is also significant that intermediaries helped broker the agreement, including Egyptian and German officials. In addition, non-officials used private channels, as did Ghazi Hamad, Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister and the Israeli Gershon Baskin, former co-director of the Israeli Palestine Center for Research and Information. The agreement affirms the positive role that intermediaries can play in de-escalating the conflict and might revive failed past mediating efforts. Other potential intermediaries can now feel encouraged to attempt mediations between Hamas and Fatah or between Hamas and Israel. Finally, the exchange may ease the way for U.S. officials to conduct back-channel, indirect communications with Hamas or signal reduced opposition to a negotiated unity agreement between leaders of Hamas and of Fatah. Such efforts can help produce an improved atmosphere and perhaps open up the opportunity for mutually acceptable steps toward improved relations between Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israeli Jews.
In any complex and protracted conflict the agreements reached between adversaries will have consequences that affect the future trajectory of that conflict; some negative and some positive. What its consequences are depends on how particular people in each opposing camp and among possible intermediaries act. The meaning and implications of the exchange will be shaped by how all the interested parties treat it. Simply dismissing any possibility of peacemaking progress is likely to be self-fullfilling, while recognizing possible transformative potentialities can help advance constructive conflict management.