Israel has a rather peculiar record when it comes to freeing Palestinian prisoners. By the standard of prevailing Israeli cultural and political values, its approach is understandable, even laudable. But by any objective standard of realpolitik, the Israeli approach is counterproductive.
Israeli governments all too frequently refuse to free imprisoned Palestinian terrorists as confidence-building gestures aimed at relatively moderate Palestinian leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). They cite legitimate reasons like the Israeli "blood on the hands" of the terrorists and the reaction of the families of those killed by the prisoners. Then they release terrorists by the hundreds in return for small numbers of Israeli prisoners. When that happens, Israel's decision-makers once again cite as justification public pressures, this time by the families of the Israeli prisoners, along with the IDF's admirable ethos of returning every lost soldier.
The Palestinian prisoners not released as gestures in accordance with requests by the more moderate Palestinian leadership are usually the old and the ill, including those sentenced before the Oslo process began 13 years ago. The prisoners released in return for captured Israeli soldiers and civilians are those demanded by the terrorist organizations holding the Israelis, and are often young and active enough to return to their terrorist activities and kill more Israelis.
The most important "missed" deal of this nature concerns the failure to ransom Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who parachuted into Lebanon in 1986. Israel wouldn't meet his captors' price in prisoners when a deal was possible; Arad subsequently disappeared. The Arad case is held up as the exception that proves the rule: pay the price. So is the death of Nachshon Waxman, a captured IDF soldier killed in an abortive rescue attempt near Jerusalem in 1994. The most controversial successful ransom deal, involving Elhanan Tanenboim, a crook ransomed from Hizballah in return for hundreds of prisoners in 2004, was sufficiently acceptable to the public that it did not cost PM Ariel Sharon politically in any way.
Every thinking Israeli understands that ransoming captured Israelis with hundreds of Palestinian prisoners runs completely counter to the logic of deterrence and encourages the abduction of additional Israelis. Yet most Israelis refuse to punish their leadership for doing this, because bringing home Israelis who have been captured and imprisoned simply because they are Israelis is a very high-value national principle. Besides, the ongoing conflict seems to provide Israel with an endless supply of new Palestinian prisoners--more than half a million (!) Palestinians have at one time or another been imprisoned by Israel--who will be available as ransom payment when the time comes.
Thus public pressures justify paying a high price in Palestinian and other prisoners to ransom captured Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, but prevent releasing less valuable Palestinian prisoners to buy good will and catalyze the political process with the Palestinian leadership. Put differently, the Israeli political leadership frequently doesn't dare to release relatively harmless Palestinian prisoners as a gesture, despite the undoubted diplomatic advantage this would generate--but also does not dare, sometimes after months and even years of bickering, to refuse to release far more dangerous prisoners when it comes to ransoming a captured Israeli.
In the current crisis over the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Olmert government--which insists it will not release prisoners this time--nevertheless appears to be considering a deal that would condition a delayed release of Palestinian prisoners not only on Shalit's prior release, but on Hamas' agreement to a more effective ceasefire that ceases Qassam rocket firings. Hamas, for its part, appears to be demanding prisoners that are relatively easy for the government of Israel to release in terms of public opinion: women, the very young and very veteran prisoners (in addition to the recently jailed Hamas legislators and other politicians). Success in negotiating such a deal would be a positive step forward for Olmert compared to what his predecessors gave up in previous deals.
An alternative might be to challenge the assumption, implicit in the repeated release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a handful of Israelis or even a single Israeli, that individual Palestinian prisoners are somehow worth less than individual Israeli prisoners. Suppose Olmert offered to release one Palestinian, Marwan Barghouti, in exchange for Corporal Shalit. . . .- Published 10/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The recent capture of an Israeli soldier has brought about high expectations in Palestinian society for a release of some Palestinian prisoners in exchange.
The issue of imprisonment and the situation of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel at the moment has always been one of the most vital and sensitive issues for Palestinians.
The issue is so crucial because those who have suffered the consequences of imprisonment, whether directly or as relatives of prisoners, constitute a vast majority of society. Secondly, prisoners are also perceived as the most credible members of society because of the sacrifice they have made to resist the occupation.
Finally, these prisoners include many leaders that were popular in their own communities. A recent indication of how important prisoners are is the prominence and importance attached to the Prisoners' Document both by the political elite and the public.
To both the Palestinian public and leadership, the Israeli reluctance to exchange some of those prisoners for their soldier is hard to understand. Indeed, Israeli arguments on this matter have only reinforced the conviction among most Palestinians about the racist bent of official Israeli thinking.
It should be understood that the Israeli attitude vis-a-vis an exchange does not come from a consideration of the issue at hand. In strategic Israeli thinking, the current Israeli behavior in Gaza is an attempt to deal with a wider range of security and political issues, and the captured soldier and Palestinian prisoners are only one component.
Security-wise Israel seems to have thought that by withdrawing and disengaging from Gaza Strip settlements, Gaza would be neutralized as far the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was concerned, busy with its own problems. Israel could then worry only about the West Bank.
The developments in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal showed that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza perceive themselves as part of one people and the territory as part of the same land. The attempt at disconnecting one from the other bears serious consequences for Palestinian aspirations for independence and statehood.
On a political level, it seems Israel has ended the "trial period" of the new Palestinian government led by Hamas. During the period between Palestinian elections and the capture of the Israeli soldier, Israel did not clearly indicate whether it wanted to dismantle this government or encourage it to moderate its position vis-a-vis Israel.
Israel was tempted toward the latter option by Hamas' adherence to the ceasefire. Now, Israel seems to be confronting the new Palestinian government and maybe all Palestinians with one of two options: either the Hamas-led government will survive but adapt itself to Israeli requirements on political and security levels; or an end will be brought to that government and with it, the Palestinian Authority.
That thinking seems to coincide with conclusions within Hamas that remaining in a state of limbo between governing and resisting is not tenable in the long or medium terms. Hamas has found itself in a position in which it has to decide whether it wants to proceed as a government and pursue its objectives by political means or remain a resistance movement that has the liberty and room for maneuver that governments do not have.
The question now is whether Israel has a post-collapse scenario in mind with all its political, security, administrative and humanitarian consequences. It's unclear as well, whether the international community, which to a certain extent is responsible for the creation of the PA and its survival, is ready for such a scenario.
Hamas can live with it. As the last party to be elected by the Palestinian people, Hamas will maintain its legitimacy with or without the PA. No other party will be able to form a new government or get a vote of confidence without Hamas, and the movement will always have the leverage of being the last elected government and parliament.
While the prisoners' issue is momentarily at the top of the agenda and the focal point of political statements, it seems that this is primarily for public consumption. But regardless of underlying motives and agendas, the prisoners' issue is a strong constraint when it comes to a solution to this current crisis, a reflection of the natural significance of the issue within Palestinian society. In a recent public opinion poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a vast majority, 68.8 percent, insisted that there could be no release of the Israel soldier without an exchange.
This crisis is going to continue for a relatively long period and will coincide with a gradual decline in the role, presence and functioning of the PA. A phase of fierce confrontations will further feed the radicalization process in both Israeli and Palestinian societies unless an active and decisive international intervention halts the deterioration .- Published 10/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Playing poker with a human life
an interview with Amnon Zichroni
bitterlemons: How do you compare the present situation with Corporal Gilad Shalit to those prisoner and hostage cases you have been involved in?
Zichroni: There are two dominant elements at play here: time and intelligence. I said from the start [of the Shalit case, some two weeks ago] that we should act fast. I suggest we desist from targeted assassinations and deal instead with targeted kidnappings. I don't mean the Hamas ministers [whom Israel arrested] but rather people who are close to the organizations holding Shalit, who could be bargaining cards. For this we need intelligence, and time is of the essence. I see [Israeli targeted kidnappings] as consistent with United Nations charters that deal with the right of self defense.
bitterlemons: How do you view Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's principled stand of refusing to discuss a prisoner exchange?
Zichroni: The moment he takes this stand, the danger to Shalit increases. Look how Ron Arad [the Israel Air Force navigator who parachuted into Lebanon in the mid-1980s and whose whereabouts are today unknown] was hustled from place to place because we were bargaining and insisted on not paying the going price. We were close to freeing him. We should announce, even if not for public consumption, that we are prepared to free prisoners. We are playing poker with a human life. The government must never refuse to negotiate. It just raises the price.
bitterlemons: There seems to be a tradition whereby our Arab neighbors insist that a single Israeli, sometimes even the body of a dead Israeli, is worth hundreds of Palestinians.
Zichroni: Perhaps the other side doesn't have the same attitude as we do to our people. And not only the other side. Here and there I was involved in trying to free European hostages held in Iran and Lebanon, and came to the conclusion that the Europeans placed less value on their citizens' lives than we do.
bitterlemons: Today Turkey and Egypt are reportedly trying to mediate. Back then, in the late 1980s, what intermediaries did you deal with?
Zichroni: I signed an agreement with an East German lawyer, Prof. Wolfgang Fogel, concerning Ron Arad, and met with a vice president of the Soviet Union and with then Soviet National Security Adviser Yevgeni Primakov.
bitterlemons: The issue of Shalit's freedom has become wrapped up in a military operation that has far broader objectives. Will this help free Shalit?
Zichroni: What we're doing in Gaza regarding the Qassam rockets will not bring back Shalit. We have to get back to the point of origin of releasing the soldier and not wage additional campaigns.- Published 10/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Attorney Amnon Zichroni was first appointed by PM Menachem Begin in 1978 to negotiate the release of Israeli prisoners and hostages in Arab hands. He dealt intensively with the cases of Ron Arad and the 1982 Sultan Yaakov MIAs.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israel needs to come up with solutions
by Mkhaimar Abusada
Since 1967, an estimated 650,000 Palestinians have at one time or another been imprisoned by Israel. Every day Israeli troops and Israel's Border Police add to that number, often by the dozen. More than 3,000 Palestinians were arrested this year alone, and double that number was arrested after the Israeli army reoccupied populated areas of the West Bank in 2002. Their "crime" is to fight the occupation.
Some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners now languish in Israel's notorious "security prisons", including 380 children under the age of 18 and 115 women. Many of those prisoners are sick and suffer from chronic diseases. Many of them are old and have spent more than 20 years in jail. Many are leaders of various Palestinian factions and groups who directed the struggle against the Israeli occupation and paved the road for Palestinian national reconciliation. Marwan Barghouti (Fateh), Ahmed Sadaat (PFLP), Abdul Khaleq Natsheh (Hamas) and others crafted the Prisoners' Document, which became a unifying document for all the factions predicated on a political settlement with Israel based on the two-state solution.
When the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, this was not, as it should have been, followed by a comprehensive release of Palestinian prisoners. The agony and suffering of these long-term prisoners and their families are an open wound in Palestinian society. Indeed, it is a source of friction and the children and relatives of Palestinian prisoners have regularly protested against a Palestinian leadership that has failed so far to secure their release. Thus the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas and other groups offered them new hope.
Over the past two weeks, the children of Palestinian prisoners have called for the release of their parents in return for the release of the Israeli kidnapped soldier. They also appealed directly to Aviva Shalit, the mother of the Israeli soldier, to understand their grief and suffering. Said one: "we know how eager you are to have your son back, to know anything about him and this is your right. But could you stop for a moment and think of the thousands of Palestinians in your jails?"
The capture of Shalit has focused attention on a problem that the Israeli government and people need to find serious solutions to. In the past, Israel has released Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldiers abducted by Palestinian groups or Hizballah in Lebanon. But the PLO has had little success with negotiations over prisoners. Instead, releases to the PLO were usually presented as "goodwill gestures". But such gestures, the last in 2003 when Mahmoud Abbas was prime minister, never dealt with the long-term prisoners.
Israeli choices this time are very limited. The best course of action would be an exchange. It seems that the security establishment in Israel is ready to release Palestinian prisoners "with no Jewish blood on their hands". The number of prisoners released seems less important to Israel than the kind of prisoners. But it will be unacceptable if a repeat of the actions of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--who freed ordinary criminals to fulfill his part of the Wye River Memorandum--is considered. A further problem facing the Israeli government now, is that the more concessions they give in return for the captured soldier the more it will strengthen Hamas and weaken moderates in Palestinian society.
Whether the capture of Shalit will put an end to the suffering of Palestinian prisoners is to be seen in the next days or months. Whether Israel will release a majority of prisoners or only a fraction will depend probably on the maneuvering power of the Palestinian side. But it is widely understood that Hamas has always played its cards shrewdly.- Published 10/7/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza and has written numerous articles on Palestinian politics.
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