So far, the PLO's policy of negotiation hasn't brought more than a symbolic number of prisoners home. (MaanImages)

Kieron Monks, The Electronic Intifada, 4 December 2009
“We do not negotiate with terrorists” — a long-cherished mantra of Western democracies. In reality all the major powers have at some stage been forced to discuss with militants, from Northern Ireland to Iraq. Now Israel seems on the verge of granting their fiercest enemies Hamas a major coup with the mooted release of up to 1,000 prisoners. What message does this send?

Of course Israel would still be holding around 10,000 Palestinians behind bars, with many more joining them each week. Nonetheless, a mass release of “hard” prisoners, a concession never granted to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president expired in January 2009, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), represents a major departure from previous policy.

In 2007, Israel released 429 prisoners, a move widely seen as a token gesture of support for Abbas, as the majority were serving short sentences for what Israel considered relatively minor crimes. Since then Israel has demonstrated no inclination to strengthen his hand in this or any other area. Abbas’s credibility has nosedived in the wake of his handling of the Goldstone report and inability to control settlement expansion, to the extent that he is on the verge of quitting. Under his leadership the PLO has doggedly pursued a policy of negotiation rather than force and threat, only to discover its partners in the “peace process” did not take their obligations seriously.

Abbas’ failures, determined by US President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their predecessors, have strengthened the support base for Hamas. It is rapidly becoming the only Palestinian party that Israel takes seriously, not by choice, but by force. Under their stewardship Gaza remains free of checkpoints and settlements, internally they rule unchallenged, in a way that the West Bank authorities can only dream of. Were it not for the rash of Israeli-supported arrests of their leaders in the West Bank it is highly likely they would have seized power there too.
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