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Arab Spring helped free Israeli soldier

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
October 19, 2011 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Gilad Shalit, freed after five years as a captive of Hamas in Gaza, walks outside his home Wednesday in Mitzpe Hila, Israel.
Gilad Shalit, freed after five years as a captive of Hamas in Gaza, walks outside his home Wednesday in Mitzpe Hila, Israel.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Arab uprising shakeups made Egypt's army, Hamas worry about popularity
  • Israel found an opportunity in a weak Hamas losing ground to rival Fatah, she writes
  • Hamas gained good will, she says, as did Egypt's army by playing role in prisoner swap
  • Ghitis: Shalit's and hundreds of Palestinians' release means more surprises ahead

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

(CNN) -- More than five years have passed since Palestinian operatives burrowed under the Israel-Gaza border and captured a 19-year-old Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit. During those years, efforts to reach an agreement that would free Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails came and went, several times appearing excruciatingly close to success.

The best efforts of mediators and negotiators from Germany, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories always ended in failure. Until now.

Why did Israel and Hamas finally manage to make a deal? Why is Shalit free? Why are hundreds of Palestinians out of prison, with hundreds more preparing to leave their cells in exchange for the Israeli's release?

The answer can be found in the impact of what we have come to know as the "Arab Spring."

The popular pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world may or may not achieve democratic change across the region, but they have dramatically changed the political landscape of the Arab world. They have threatened the very foundations of the political order, shaking up old alliances and making governments worry about their popular standing. The mass anti-dictatorship demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, across Syria, and in other parts of the Arab Middle East produced a series of developments in Gaza, Cairo, Ramallah, Damascus and Jerusalem that culminated in an agreement to free the captives.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

As the protests exploded across the region, young people in Gaza planned their own demonstrations against their rulers, the militant Islamic organization Hamas, which took power from the Palestinian Authority in a brief but vicious civil war in 2006, the year after Israel decided to end its occupation and remove all its citizens from Gaza.

Earlier this year, Hamas decisively put an end to any plan to have a Palestinian Spring in Gaza, breaking up protest rallies and raiding the offices of media organizations covering the events. But anti-Hamas sentiment did not evaporate. Polls showed a majority of young Palestinians there would have supported mass protests calling for an end to Hamas' rule.

For Gaza's rulers, the Arab Spring brought an even more troubling development. For months now, the people of Syria have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to demand an end to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one of Hamas' most important backers.

Hamas, an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, has existed as part of an unofficial four-piece bloc of countries and militant organizations aligned firmly against Israel: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Syria had played a pivotal role, giving the militant Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah training and material support and acting as conduit for funding and military support from Iran.

Hamas' governing politburo is based in Damascus, and its chairman, Khaled Mashal, lives in Syria, enjoying al-Assad's protection since 2001.

For Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and several other countries, Assad's protection offered not only needed practical support, but also international legitimacy.  Assad's policy of brutally crushing dissent in Syria, killing thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, threatened to taint his Hamas friends.

Hamas also found itself losing ground to its bitter rival, Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' move to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations lifted his and Fatah's standing. Hamas found itself getting weaker by the day.

Despite the lack of progress in the pursuit of peace with Israel, the standard of living for Palestinians in the West Bank has improved markedly in recent years, whereas life in Gaza, under Hamas rule and strict Israeli sanctions is enormously difficult.

Not only did Hamas need a major victory that would strengthen its standing among Palestinians. Israel also found a deal easier to accept now. Hamas agreed to remove the names of some of the prisoners Israeli found most objectionable.

For Israelis, the idea of releasing Palestinian prisoners convicted of participating in terrorist attacks that killed Israeli civilians has always created wrenching choices. Previously freed prisoners have gone on to kill more Israeli civilians. But Israeli leaders had another reason for resisting a deal before.  They knew that a mass prisoner release would give a huge boost to Hamas, an organization whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Now that Hamas looks weaker than it has in a long time, Israelis could worry somewhat less about seeing a burst of popular support for the organization.

For Egypt, as well, this was a propitious time to broker an agreement.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has governed the country since Mubarak was toppled, has also found itself in urgent need of improving its popular standing. The army was the darling of the people when it refused to crush the Tahrir Square protests. But since it took over on an interim basis it has come under growing criticism for several things, including delaying the implementation of democratic reforms.

By playing a crucial role in bringing about the freeing of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the council earned itself significant good will from the Egyptian people. It also gained the gratitude of Israel and the United States.

Of course, all the good will earned by the Egyptian military and by Hamas could be short-lived.

Still, the sequence of events that led to the end of Shalit's more than five years' of confinement with no human contact other than his captors, and to the release of Palestinian prisoners who had spent years in confinement, has set off a series of reactions without a predictable end. Without a doubt, there are more surprises to come.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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