Israel's decision to release some 200 Palestinian prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" to President Mahmoud Abbas comes not long after the exchange of prisoners and bodies, including many Palestinians, between Israel and Hizballah and amid ongoing negotiations about a possible prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas.
Attention has thus been refocused on the issue of Palestinian prisoners, a particularly sensitive one in Palestinian society.
In order to give an idea of the magnitude of the issue, it might be useful to provide some facts and figures. At the moment, there are between 10,000 and 11,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in various Israeli jails. This is a figure that has remained consistently high since the beginning of the Israeli occupation 41 years ago. The total number of Palestinians to have spent time in Israeli prison is estimated at 700,000, roughly one-fifth of the current Palestinian population of the occupied territories.
Among the current crop of prisoners, 326 are minors, 94 are women, 47 are elected parliamentarians and 1,150 are in administrative detention and are being held without charge or trial. Contrary to the impression created by Israeli propaganda, the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners are not incarcerated as a result of violent activity but because of political activity.
Israeli military order 101 stipulates that it is forbidden to hold protest marches or meetings in groupings of ten or more where the subject concerned is related to politics without permission from the military commander. The same order prohibits the distribution of political articles and pictures "with political connotation". Military order 938, meanwhile, considers "supporting a hostile organization by holding a flag or listening to a national song" a "hostile action". These are some of the more common "offences" that Palestinians are convicted of.
Prison conditions are terrible and torture is common. The former were described in a 2005 UN special report as "harsh", under which "prisoners live in overcrowded, poorly ventilated cells that they generally leave for only two hours a day." The same report goes on to note that, "allegations of torture and inhuman treatment of detainees and prisoners continue. Such torture includes beating, shackling in painful positions, kicking, prolonged blind cuffing, denial of access to medical care, exposure to extreme temperatures and inadequate provision of food and water."
Relatives of prisoners suffer in more ways than merely knowing of the inhuman conditions their loved ones suffer under. Israel violates a direct stipulation of international law by keeping most prisoners in jails inside Israel and forbidding Palestinians in general, including relatives of prisoners, from entering Israel. This way, Israel dramatically limits opportunities for families to visit their imprisoned relatives. Usually they have to wait for the International Committee of the Red Cross to obtain permits for such visits ensuring that, at best, relatives make no more than one or two visits a year.
Israeli prisons, meanwhile, are also where most current Palestinian activists and leaders received their political education and started their systematic affiliations to political factions. Imprisonment is considered a badge of honour for Palestinians. It is as much a source of pride and credibility as it is a cause of anguish. It has proven an effective way of involving new generations in the struggle against occupation. Indeed, in most cases young imprisoned Palestinians are only suspected of political involvement. The injustice and conditions of their detention will make such involvement inevitable.
With all that in mind, the release of 200 prisoners is meaningless and insignificant not only in terms of numbers, but also in practice. Israel continues to arrest and release some 20 to 30 Palestinians every day. Israel would in any case have released or arrested that number in the next few weeks.
The attempt by Israeli leaders and, unfortunately, some Palestinians to portray this release as a political achievement by the Palestinian leadership is pathetically misguided. President Abbas, as a political leader, is expected by his public to solve the political problem and end the occupation as a way to bring to an end the whole phenomenon of Palestinian imprisonment. He is not expected to get bogged down is minor prisoner releases.
Indeed, this "goodwill gesture" could backfire. Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to be the political representative of the Palestinian people, notables and Israeli-appointed Palestinian mayors of the various towns and villages under occupation used to plead for the release of prisoners on certain occasions, like the approaching month of Ramadan. Releases were then authorized in order to give them some credibility among their people. It is unfortunate that the Palestinian leadership has been co-opted, weakened and stripped of its political leverage to such an extent that it is in need of the support of such empty gestures.- Published 25/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The right move
by Yossi Alpher
The release scheduled for today of 198 Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted of serious terrorist offenses--including two who were directly involved in the murder of Israelis prior to the Oslo accord of 1993--is a smart and courageous move by the otherwise highly problematic Olmert government. If it introduces some logic into criteria for future prisoner release by Israel it could have a positive strategic effect beyond its immediate confidence-building impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
A succession of Israeli governments has long been caught up in a terrorist-prisoner syndrome that combines draconian sentences as strong deterrent punishment with a refusal to use prisoner releases as confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinian public and government. One negative result has been the creation of incentives for Palestinian (and Hizballah) leaders to devote strenuous efforts to kidnap Israelis--to the extent of catalyzing wars--in the certain knowledge that prisoner exchanges are the only way Israelis will release terrorists whose freedom the Arab publics demand. Another has been Israeli neglect of an important tool for improving relations with Palestinians.
While Israeli leaders long ago grasped the negative aspects of their prisoner policy, they have always seemingly felt constrained both by public opinion and by the need to hold onto "quality" prisoners as bargaining cards for the current or next prisoner exchange. In both cases, public opinion has played a major role: a permanent and strong lobby is mounted by the families of victims of terrorism against releasing hard-core terrorists; and temporary lobbies are mounted by the families of kidnapped or captured Israelis to pressure for prisoner exchanges no matter what the costs.
Yet we now encounter a decision to release hard-core non-Hamas terrorist prisoners as a confidence-building gesture to the PLO/PA leadership. This takes place in the absence of a seemingly justifiable occasion such as some sort of peace agreement, but rather as a gesture designed to improve the likelihood of such an agreement and strengthen the moderate Palestinian camp against Hamas. The rationale is the huge importance the Palestinian public attaches to the freeing and repatriation of its prisoners--an issue no less important to Palestinians than to Israelis.
Two fairly obvious arguments can be mounted against this move: first, that this gesture erodes Israel's anti-terrorism deterrent profile; and second, that no peace agreement appears likely or attainable. Both are weighty and worthy of discussion.
The first objection can be met by ensuring that hard-core terrorists and those with Israeli "blood on their hands" are released only after serving many years in prison. This will also ensure that a relatively small proportion of the released prisoners return to active terrorism. Here we must bear in mind that Israeli military and civilian courts tend to sentence Arab terrorists and their accomplices to periods of incarceration that often far exceed the sentences meted out to Israelis for similar "civilian" offenses, including vicious murders (there is no death penalty in Israel). Hence "early release" of terrorists can be justified as long as it ensures that they served a "deterrent" period of time in Israeli jails. Moreover, in terms of Israeli public opinion, release of Palestinian terrorists can and should be balanced by measured steps to release Israelis jailed for many years for murdering Arabs.
Another desirable Israeli approach in this regard would be to recognize that terrorist prisoners with "blood on their hands" are no less worthy of eventual release than their accomplices or the masterminds of terrorist cells who often receive lighter sentences simply because they themselves didn't "pull the trigger", their weapon jammed, the explosives failed to detonate, etc. In other words, Israel's criteria for determining who gets released are in bad need of a logical revision. In this regard, the Olmert government's decision to release PLO-connected but not Hamas prisoners makes perfect sense. Israel has a peace process with the PLO--something that is inconceivable with Hamas.
The second objection--why encourage an unattainable peace--refers to deep-seated public doubts about the mandate and credibility of the current Israeli and Palestinian Authority governments alike. Here it would be helpful if both would indicate to their publics where the process currently stands, i.e., what hoped-for progress the prisoner release is designed to advance. That said, the obvious goal of weakening Hamas, confirmed by that movement's pathetic objections to the release of 198 non-Hamas terrorists, may be justification enough.
It would also be worthwhile for the governments concerned, including the Bush administration, to consider focusing on less ambitious objectives than comprehensive peace that nevertheless justify prisoner releases. These might include interim objectives such as the removal of settlements and outposts in portions of the northern West Bank as Palestinian security forces demonstrate their capability to maintain security.
All things considered, and even bearing in mind the validity of these objections, the release of 198 Palestinian prisoners associated with the PLO and PA is an important step toward rationalizing Israel's approach to releasing of terrorist prisoners: as a tool for peace rather than as a feature of warfare.- Published 25/8/2008 © 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.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Partial process of prisoner releases is devoid of context
by Walid Salem
In the fifteen years that have passed since the Oslo process began, several partial releases of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons have occurred even while the number of Palestinian prisoners continued to increase. How can one understand the seeming paradox that partial releases take place, but the number of prisoners increases because of new Israeli arrests?
The Palestinian assumption all along was that there would be a process of successive partial releases of prisoners to accompany progress in the implementation of peace agreements on the ground, leading finally to the release of all prisoners. But contrary to expectations, the peace process implementation didn't go well. The number of prisoners increased instead of decreased.
In that context, partial releases of prisoners became gestures and were voided of meaning as an integral part of a peace process between the two sides.
A progression can be traced in prisoner releases. At the beginning, the two sides together decided the names of those to be released. At that time, no conditions were imposed, for instance limiting releases to only those with "no blood on their hands". In a second stage, those agreed on for release where obliged to sign a pledge that they would not again act against Israel. Finally, a third stage, the current one, emerged in which Israel unilaterally decides the names, criteria and conditions for releasing Palestinian prisoners.
The August 17 Israeli decision to release 200 Palestinian prisoners of which two have "blood on their hands"--from attacks that took place in the 1970s--is just one more example of partial process divorced from progress in the peace process. It is an attempt to do something partial in the hope that this will compensate for the absence of progress. The Israeli government rejected a Palestinian request to hold a meeting of the joint committee of prisoners and instead took all decisions about the names of those to be released unilaterally through the Israeli special ministerial committee led by Haim Ramon.
Contrast this with the case of Hizballah, where the Lebanese group managed to secure the release of all Lebanese prisoners in successive exchanges. Of course, Hizballah does not face the problem of continued arrests as Palestinians do every day across the West Bank. Compare this also with the expected exchange between Israel and Hamas, where Hamas looks likely to secure a much better deal for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit than the "goodwill gesture" afforded President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas, it seems, will be able to secure the release of senior leaders from Israeli prisons that the current partial release did not include. Furthermore, those Hamas brings back to Gaza will be in less danger of being re-arrested in the way that Israel can re-arrest those who are released to the West Bank.
One thing that emerges from of all this is that Israel is dealing with two Palestinian partners regarding prisoners; the PA for PLO (mainly Fateh) prisoners, and Hamas for the rest. A side effect of this is that it will certainly give Hamas a new weapon in its propaganda war against Abbas, enabling the Islamist movement to portray him as the representative of Fateh only and not all the Palestinian people. It will also give Hamas ammunition to paint those released today as collaborators with Israel who are released in order to act against Hamas in the West Bank.
One can also conclude that Israel still offers better deals regarding prisoners to those who attack it and capture its soldiers. To those with whom Israel is supposed to be engaged in a process to secure peace, Israel makes only partial releases divorced from any political horizon: "gestures" that might weaken rather than strengthen their recipients.
It is essential to re-evaluate the prisoner releases that took place in the last 15 years, and to re-link any upcoming releases to a peace making/peace building process leading at the end to the release of all Palestinian prisoners, without discrimination.
This will require first and foremost reactivating the peace process and its implementation rather than pursuing what is currently being pursued: a peace process as an alternative to peace itself.- Published 25/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Fueling the peace-line express
by Amnon Lord
For the Israeli public, the news of the decision to release 198 Palestinian prisoners sentenced on terrorist charges came as a puzzling surprise. Nobody understands the reason or the rationale for this move. It is of course being presented as a gesture to the Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) wing of the Palestinian Authority.
Here are a few guesses as to the reasons behind the move. If Israel engages in a massive release of hundreds of terrorists within the framework of a deal to get Gilad Shalit back home, this will be registered as a huge Hamas achievement, thus further weakening Abu Mazen--so let's do something in advance to boost his position. That could be counted as a reason, and the conduct of Hamas since the announcement, opposing this move by Israel, suggests that this reading is correct. We can also see the move as a supposedly sophisticated but actually clumsy psychological warfare ploy to stir up public opinion among Palestinians so that internal pressure pushes Hamas to conclude prisoner-exchange negotiations whereby hundreds of Palestinian families can at last rejoice with their released loved ones.
But all of these considerations cannot change the feeling that this is a misconceived act by the Israeli government. There are the general strategic political reasons against such gestures by Israel and there are reasons of principle as well. This kind of empty gesture suggests that the onus of peace process obligations has shifted. Instead of the Palestinians fulfilling their obligations since the roadmap was launched about five years ago, Israel has once again been maneuvered into the corner of the accused--the partner who hasn't done enough to pump the political fuel of optimism to the peace-line express.
For their part, the Palestinians have no motivation to hurry. They are content to change their propaganda and adopt a psychological warfare tool of their own. They point to a new horizon: the famous one-state solution. The terrorist arch-enemy applies for citizenship in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel and the international community no longer insist on the demands that were earlier accepted as prerequisites for advancing toward a final settlement. These conditions are familiar: stopping terrorist activity, establishing the rule of law by Palestinians' own law-enforcement organizations, reforming those organizations and so forth. But who remembers those demands? We are all attached to imaginary negotiations for a shelf-agreement that means only one thing: Israeli concessions will be signed as a bill of debt--to be paid if and when.
This is a deceitful way to bypass an Israeli public that has completely lost faith in the possibility of reaching peace with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the two sides have been engaged in other kinds of negotiations, for a short-term ceasefire with Hamas and the release of Gilad Shalit. No doubt such political sideshows would play out to the detriment of Palestinian interest in a peaceful final settlement if the de facto political vacuum on both sides did not in any case forestall any likelihood of progress, whether in peace talks or contacts with Hamas.
This entire process hurts Israel and erodes its credibility, not only as a political partner but as a democratic state with a judicial system whose judgments must be seen as absolutely credible. Ever since the Oslo accords, Israel has drifted from a firm position that carries weight and credibility to a shaky and undefined position in which its words sometimes don't count at all. This is serious erosion. Israel's strength stems from its ability to stand by its promises and obligations: when it threatens, its threat should be credible; when it makes a commitment, it should be fulfilled without fraud.
A huge release of prisoners that is not anchored in some kind of settlement undermines all those basics that Israeli sovereignty and national honor rest upon. Most important, deterrence against terrorism is based on a firm concept of the rule of law. It undermines the Israeli legal system if illegal fighters engaged in the murder of civilians are not held to their crimes. It hints to the Arabs and to international as well as Israeli public opinion that we don't take seriously our own rhetoric about terrorism and the war on terrorism. In the end, this process blurs the line between fighters on both sides of the battlefield and civilians. It validates the worst judgments made by war criminals in the wars of the twentieth century: that there are no "innocents"; that the entire enemy camp is engaged and responsible and is therefore a legitimate target.
The release of terrorist prisoners is therefore a mistake on the principled level of strategic, judicial and moral conduct.- Published 25/8/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is editor-in-chief of Makor Rishon daily newspaper.
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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.