GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The release of an Israeli soldier by Hamas as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel is reshaping complex regional ties.
The swap, mediated by Egypt, has strengthened Hamas' bond with the regional powerhouse next door and removed a major irritant from its fraught relationship with Israel. Trading Sgt. Gilad Schalit for 1,027 Palestinians held by Israel also boosted Hamas' flagging popularity at home, at the expense of its main domestic rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was forced to watch from the sidelines.
It's not clear whether any of this will last, especially if Hamas acts on threats to capture more Israeli soldiers in an attempt to free 4,300 Palestinians still in Israeli prisons. And a fickle Palestinian public could quickly forget about the swap; only a month ago, it cheered Abbas for bypassing talks with Israel to seek U.N. recognition for a state of Palestine.
In the euphoria over Tuesday's homecoming of the first group of 477 inmates, including more than 280 serving life sentences, criticism of the deal was muted. Still, the Islamists made concessions they previously rejected, including that key militant leaders remain behind bars and that dozens of West Bankers be deported to Gaza or sent into exile.
Gaza's 1.5 million people have paid a steep price for Schalit's 2006 capture just outside their territory. Schalit's incarceration was a key reason for the ongoing border blockade imposed by Israel. In the month after his capture, Israeli military raids killed more than 200 Palestinians. Hamas' refusal to free Schalit also played a role, along with rocket fire from Gaza, in Israel's decision to wage a three-week war nearly three years ago, killing hundreds of Gazans and destroying thousands of homes. The closure devastated the economy and drove thousands more deeper into poverty.