Eyad Baba/AP
Released Palestinian prisoners celebrate as they arrive at the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday.

Gilad Shalit deal boosts Hamas in West Bank as Fatah clings to support

Palestinian prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal were welcomed home in Ramallah amid an unusual display of support for Hamas.

Thousands of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah today to welcome home about 100 prisoners returning to the area.

The crowds inside and outside the Muqata compound, former President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters, blurred into a sea of flags and pictures of Palestinian prisoners on the cusp of release.

“I’m happy, and I’m not happy. I am happy to be free, but there are still girls in there,” said 26-year-old Fatin Bassam Al-Sa'di, one of 27 women set free today, as she hugged family members crowding around her inside the compound. “Our hope lays in the next deal for the rest of the women to be free.”

Hamas's negotiation of a deal that freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas in 2006, has won the group points in the West Bank, where it is locked in a continuous struggle for dominance against Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank.

Fatah scored a victory last month when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, defied Israeli and American wishes and presented a bid for Palestinian membership to the United Nations.

Just last week, "UN Bid" was the phrase here, and Mr. Abbas was still riding a groundswell of support. But that support and fixation on statehood has been at least temporarily overrun by the excitement about the biggest-ever Palestinian prisoner release. Fatah has never secured the release of such a large number of inmates.

At today's gathering, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated the prisoners, but took the opportunity standing before a crowd to push his statehood agenda.

“The previous talks were built on the basis of 1967 borders,” Mr. Abbas told the prisoners, family members, and supporters who had gathered. “And there must be a stop to settlement construction.”

He praised the prisoners as "freedom fighters" but reminded the crowd that his nonviolent approach had successes, hinting that another prisoner release would follow. Increased stability in the West Bank under Abbas and Prime Minster Salam Fayyad's leadership, has resulted in strong economic growth and the removal of many Israeli checkpoints, easing movement for Palestinians.

“Of course we want a state and a homeland,” says Fatin Bassam Al-Sa’di’s uncle, Marwan al-Sa’di. “But when someone makes a deal like that we have to welcome it.” He declined to disclose which party he supports.

Outside the Muqata and on the streets of Ramallah, green Hamas flags flapped in the wind, an uncommon site in the Fatah support base. Many people sported Hamas headbands and hoisted flags and freed prisoners above the crowds, chanting, “God is Great.”

One man's flag was snatched out of his hands by a plainclothes security officer, who shook his head as he rolled up the green fabric, but many continued to make their support for Hamas, at least for today, clear.

Jawad Awash, wearing a Hamas cap and a Hamas banner tied around his neck, held up a poster of his cousin Taha Shahshir, who was in prison for 20 years.

“Thanks to god. I am happy. Hamas is on my head from above,” Mr. Awash says, using a common Arabic expression indicating respect. He traveled from the West Bank city of Nablus to welcome Mr. Shahshir, who was swarmed by family and friends when he entered the crowd.

The potential for more kidnappings in order to secure the release of more prisoners has been floated, not only by Palestinians, but by Israelis worried about a repeat.

“We hope for another Shalit, or 10 more Shalits,” Mr. Awash says, voicing a sentiment echoed by others hoping another kidnapped soldier will bring home more Palestinian prisoners.

The common refrain is that the deal will embolden Hamas, but the deal may be a signal that the group is more likely to take the opposite tack: moderation. Naji Shurrab, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al Azhar University says this deal could be an indication that Hamas’s approach is changing.

“Hamas is seeking international and regional support,” says Dr. Shurrab, adding that Fatah and Hamas will need to reconcile to achieve their goals. Hamas's willingness to negotiate with Israel, even indirectly, shows that it is becoming more moderate. “It is showing Europe, the US, and even Israel that it’s ready to open the door.”

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