Throughout 40 years of occupation, the prisoners' issue has always been a hugely important one in Palestinian society. Prisoners as a segment of society are highly credible in the eyes of a public that respects the acts of resistance to the Israeli occupation that put them in jail in the first place.
Until the signing of Oslo and the advent of the Palestinian Authority, Israel undertook such widespread arrest campaigns that it was exceptional to find families without relatives either in prison or who were ex-prisoners. The number came down with the Oslo agreement, which stipulated the release of all prisoners. Still, and in contradiction to Oslo, only half were actually released in the mid-1990s.
The number of prisoners increased again with the renewal of confrontations in 2000 and onward. The number now is roughly 11,000 and includes different categories of prisoners. Some are convicted either for their political activities or their armed resistance. There are minors, a number that always lies in the hundreds. Then there is the category of prisoners Israel calls "administrative detainees". These are prisoners against whom no charges have been brought, for whom no trial is certain and whose sentence can be renewed six months at a time. Some administrative detainees stay incarcerated like this for several years.
The release of prisoners has always been at the top of the agenda of any Palestinian political party or government. It was President Mahmoud Abbas' main promise to the public in his election campaign in 2005, and before that when he was prime minister.
Israel, however, has proven itself willing to release prisoners only in exchange for Israeli captives, dead or alive. This happened more than once, when Palestinian factions managed to capture Israeli soldiers during the first Lebanon war, or when Hizballah did the same and exchanged them for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.
This experience has taught Palestinian factions to pursue such a method in order to secure the release of prisoners. It is unfortunate that Israel is not willing to release prisoners in the context of peace agreements or as a confidence-building measure during negotiations.
In exchange for the captured Israeli soldier in Gaza, Gilad Shalit, Palestinian factions have demanded the release of those who have spent more than 20 years behind bars as well as female and underage prisoners. But with its own categorization of prisoners as those with or without "blood on their hands", Israel has been dragging out negotiations over an exchange.
The Israeli position is unusual. The exchange of prisoners is a normal procedure in wars and conflict situations, and Israel itself recently implemented the principle with Hizballah. Palestinians are left to conclude that Israel is not really interested in closing a deal to release Shalit.
There are of course internal Israeli political considerations behind that. The current Israeli government is weak. On the one hand, that means it needs Shalit's release to bolster its popularity, but on the other, it is afraid of paying the political price for doing so. So far, it is the fear of opposition criticism that is the tail wagging the dog.
In general, Israel fails to realize that imprisoning Palestinians has never been a useful strategy to reduce hostility, hatred and resistance. On the contrary, the more Palestinians in prison the greater the hostility. In addition, Palestinians know prisons as "universities". These universities graduate the next generation of political and resistance leaders. Thus, the more Israel imprisons, the more it contributes to increasing the organized resistance to the Israeli occupation.
As in so many other areas, only an Israeli willingness to end the occupation and release prisoners in the context of a peace settlement consistent with international legality can bring Israel the peace it needs.- Published 16/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Last June 25, when IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by Palestinians from Israeli territory, Israelis knowledgeable about the history of prisoner exchanges between the two sides remarked that either Shalit would be returned within weeks--or the process would take years. A similar prognosis was offered immediately after the July 12, 2006 abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hizballah in Lebanon.
Israel chose to respond to the abductions militarily. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert also proclaimed that Israel would not buy its soldiers' freedom by releasing Arab prisoners. This sealed the fate of the abducted soldiers to spend prolonged periods of time in enemy captivity. It was perfectly clear then, as now, that being blackmailed into releasing terrorists from Israeli prisons in order to repatriate abducted Israeli soldiers would weaken Israel's overall deterrent profile and encourage more attempts to abduct Israelis.
It was also clear, Olmert's remarks notwithstanding, that eventually we would "pay" for the soldiers' release. It was almost as if the entire affair had been choreographed in advance: Israeli resolve not to release prisoners; Israeli military retaliation that ends inconclusively; Israeli acceptance of the need to negotiate a prisoner exchange; prolonged negotiations during which Israel initially rejects the Arab demand to release large numbers of Arab prisoners but eventually accedes; difficulty in formulating an agreed list of prisoners among diverse Palestinian factions; more prolonged negotiations.
The most painful example of this ritual gone awry concerns Israel Air Force aviator Ron Arad. We turned down an initial deal because the price seemed too high. By the time we came around to accepting a higher price, Arad had disappeared in the hands of Lebanese Shi'ite extremists and/or Iranians.
We are currently stuck somewhere in the middle of this process. Negotiations over an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange are nowhere near conclusion. The recent optimistic media spin that accompanied the delivery to Israel of a list of several hundred Palestinian prisoners reflects the Palestinians' need to signal the international community that they are making progress toward a prisoner exchange that will, they hope, open the gates to financial support and diplomatic contacts. It also reflects Olmert's need to be perceived by the Israeli public as "delivering".
But realities on the ground are harsher. Israel quickly reviewed the Palestinian list and expressed "disappointment and reservations" because it comprised so many senior terrorist commanders and others with "blood on their hands" whose deeds were carried out in recent years. At the same time, there were hints that Israel may agree to release those incarcerated since before the Oslo process began, however heinous their deeds. We will almost certainly now encounter a negotiating pause while Israel registers its objections via Egyptian mediators and the Palestinians discuss among their various factions the identity of alternative candidates for the list.
From the Israeli standpoint, there are a number of lessons to be learned from the latest repetition of this ritual. First, no Israeli government can withstand the social, political and military pressures within Israel to pay ransom in the form of prisoner exchange in order to repatriate imprisoned Israelis. This is especially true regarding soldiers; it is critical for morale and motivation that serving troops and their families know that the government will invest huge efforts to rescue them if they fall into enemy captivity. Hence there is something to be said for avoiding non-credible statements about refusing to negotiate, and getting involved in prisoner exchange talks from the start.
Second--and to his credit, Olmert appears to have recognized this reality before the Shalit abduction but had no time to act on his insight--keeping thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons based on draconian sentences that would never have been applied to Israeli Jews who commit capital offenses merely feeds Palestinian determination to go to any lengths and accept any degree of suffering in order to get them out. Once the current prisoner exchange drama is over, and before another one can begin, the government must readjust its approach to the incarceration of Palestinians so that even the worst Palestinian terrorist offenders have a realistic chance of being released through legal procedures sometime in their lifetime, just as do Israeli rapists and murderers.
If we are honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that as long as we insist on never releasing Arab terrorists through institutionalized procedures, they will be released in prisoner exchanges. Better to institutionalize the process: this will reduce the danger of additional Israelis being abducted while constituting a realistic trust-building measure with Palestinians. But if more abductions do take place, this will also strengthen our resolve not to release young terrorists early in their sentences, most of whom invariably return to the path of terror. This has been the pattern in most recent prisoner exchanges, with devastating consequences for Israeli security.
Finally, for political purposes--i.e., to mute criticism from the right and from the families of Israeli victims of terrorism--but also in terms of fairness and balance, when a prisoner exchange occurs or, preferably, when veteran Palestinian terrorist prisoners are released by Israel voluntarily, the government can and should release Israeli terrorists incarcerated for prolonged periods for attacking Palestinians.
The prisoner issue will only end when there is a permanent and comprehensive political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That appears far away. Hence we must rethink this highly emotional issue in the most rational way possible, the sooner the better.- Published 16/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Exchange in context
by George Giacaman
There may still be some difficult negotiations ahead. The internal politics on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides will be a hindrance. Nevertheless, one should expect that, perhaps sooner rather than later, there will a deal to exchange Palestinian political prisoners for the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
On the Palestinian side the release of Palestinian political prisoners is a top priority among the general public. Over 10,000 prisoners languish in Israeli jails, and their families and friends are an influential lobby pressuring the Palestinian government. President Mahmoud Abbas' inability to bring about the release of prisoners after his election in January 2005 undermined the perception of his effectiveness among a majority of Palestinians.
From an Israeli point of view, there are several precedents for prisoner exchanges, both Palestinian and Lebanese. Families of captive soldiers have also frequently worked as effective lobbies pressuring the government. The case of Ron Arad has haunted successive Israeli governments.
Still, prisoner exchanges often fall prey to internal politics. The present Israeli government is widely seen as weak, and parties in the opposition are lurking to pounce at any move, including meeting Palestinian demands for an exchange.
The problem is, as one Israeli writer said recently albeit in a different context, when Israel is strong, it has no need to make peaceful gestures, and when it is weak it lacks the ability to do so. As a result, Palestinians have concluded that only by capturing soldiers can they secure the release of their prisoners.
Look at the period following the election of Abbas. For a whole year, until parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Israeli government had an opportunity to "bolster" Abbas' standing. Israel was even urged to do so by the US administration. A release of prisoners would have been a very effective move in this direction. But it was only after Hamas' victory in the PLC elections that the Israeli government entertained the idea of releasing imprisoned Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti. The problem the Israeli government faces now is how to do so without giving victory to Hamas or leaving Barghouti indebted to Hamas rather than Abbas.
From a broader regional and international perspective, the exchange of prisoners is an important first step in a series of moves that may pave the way for a possible resumption of a political process. There is no certainty that such a process will start, but it is certain that a political process will not start without a conducive atmosphere. Such an atmosphere would almost certainly need to include an exchange of prisoners and a mutual ceasefire in Gaza as well as the West Bank.
At least, this is the Palestinian understanding of the EU statement issued shortly after the end of the Arab summit in Riyadh last month. The EU's statement emphasized that it will be judging the performance of the new Palestinian government on the basis of its deeds. This is a realignment of position, compared to earlier statements where only "words" were mentioned, that is, the Palestinian government's acceptance of the three conditions of the Quartet. There is therefore a clear interest on the part of the Palestinian Authority headed by Abbas to expedite the exchange in order to lay the ground for a possible political process.
I say "possible" because the Israeli government has so far refused to discuss "final status" issues, such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees, and has not accepted the Arab Peace Initiative, extended again at the summit in Riyadh. The Oslo process failed because these issues were not finalized at the beginning and instead became a victim of the balance of forces between the two sides.
In spite of its weak government, Israel as a state is strong. Could it be that because it is strong, it has no need for peace?- Published 16/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches in the MA Program in Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Stop giving in to kidnappers
by Yisrael Harel
The very fact we are conducting negotiations with Hamas for the release of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit constitutes a display of ongoing Israeli weakness. Yet Israel, confronted with the outrageous demand to release 1,400 terrorists in return for Shalit, still has an opportunity to right the strategic balance with the terrorist organizations. Were Israel to evince the wisdom required for a radical policy change, this would also improve its strategic balance with those Arab countries that continue to consider the prospect of ending the existence of the Jewish-Zionist state in the Middle East.
May 21, 1985 witnessed what has come to be known as the "Jibril deal". Some 1,115 terrorists were released in exchange for three Israeli soldiers who had been abducted in Lebanon. According to statistics published by the Israel General Security Service (Shabak, or Shin Bet), more than 40 percent of those released went on to resume terrorist operations including acts of murder. Those released in the Jibril deal also produced the Palestinian leadership that launched the 1989 intifada--that in many ways continues to this day.
With 22 years hindsight, that was a cancerous precedent. The terrorist organizations discovered Israel's soft belly: the inability to withstand the pressures exerted by the families of the abducted soldiers. Ever since, abductions have become routine: Israelis are kidnapped and Israeli governments, right- and left-wing, redeem the abductees with the wholesale release of terrorists. It is these frequent capitulations, especially in the Lebanon arena, that led Hassan Nasrallah in 2000 to the conclusion that Israel had lost the will to fight and could be likened in its weakness to a spider web.
The man who convinced Nasrallah more than any other Israeli leader was Ariel Sharon. Even this Israeli war hero, before whom the entire region quaked, gave in to the Hizballah leader's demand to release hundreds of terrorists, including some linked to the disappearance of IAF navigator Ron Arad, in return for no more than an Israeli drug dealer, Elhanan Tanenbaum, and the bodies of three dead soldiers.
The consequences of that inexplicable capitulation were soon apparent: another attempt to abduct soldiers at Har Dov a few months later, followed by the resounding abduction of July 2006 that led to the Second Lebanon War, with all its negative ramifications for Israel's strategic position in the region.
To repair even a modicum of the damage, Israel must institute a total revision of its policy of capitulation. I propose that Israel disband the team that is negotiating with the go-betweens to Hamas and declare, as PM Ehud Olmert in fact did immediately after the Shalit abduction nine months ago, "There will be no more prisoner exchange deals with the abductors; the blackmail season is over."
Israel knows that Shalit is alive and in good health. It also knows who abducted him, who planned the abduction operation and who is currently aiding in concealing him and determining Palestinian negotiating policy. Any harm to Shalit, Olmert should announce, will lead to physical attack against all these persons. Israel can also render the Hamas "political" leadership, including PM Ismail Haniyeh, prisoners inside the Gaza Strip. No one from Hamas will leave or enter--certainly not those carrying suitcases full of cash--until Shalit is released. And if these measures don't work, then Israel with its military might and special technical and other units undoubtedly has additional ways to deal with the crisis so that the psychological balance changes and it, rather than Hamas, sets the tone.
True, even this development might not automatically alter the psychological balance with Hizballah, which is holding two abductees and is ostensibly tougher in its negotiating pose. Yet Israel should adopt the same new and stubborn position with Hizballah, and send the same message regarding the welfare of the two soldiers in its hands. Even if this proves of no avail, no more business should be done with Hizballah. With all due regard for the pain of the abductees and their families, decision-makers in Israel should be guided by consideration for the country's strategic profile and the welfare of the soldiers or civilians who would be killed, wounded and imprisoned as a consequence of the release of terrorists and the implementation of additional kidnapping operations. Our leaders must not be influenced by the pressures exerted by the families and friends of the imprisoned soldiers or by public opinion that has been manipulated down to a profile of weakness.
After the trauma of the latest Lebanon war, which after all broke out because of an abduction, Israel is all the more bound to end the spiral of kidnappings. By rejecting the next demand to capitulate, Israel will restore the struggle to the real battlefield where, despite the incomprehensible weakness it displayed in the last war, it still enjoys an absolute advantage.- Published 16/4/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He is former head of the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and former editor of its monthly Nekuda.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.