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Prisoners for Peace

Ramallah

On Tuesday August 13th,  26 “low risk” Palestinian prisoners were released to their families by the Israeli government, a  “gesture of good faith” made by Israeli Primer Minster Netanyahu to President Abbas amidst the peace talks that are set to resume in Jerusalem on Wednesday.  These kinds of prisoner releases have been commonplace in the years preceding the landmark Oslo agreement-each event garnering massive media attention and the reiteration of a narrative of Israeli benevolence and victimization.

And while many in the media have questioned the sincerity of this gesture in brokering peace, little has been said about the flaws inherent to the peace process in Israel and Palestine regarding the prisoner issue.

In the history of this conflict the release of political prisoners has consistently been presented as a concession by Israel, not an obligation- seen through the lens of Israel security needs and an assumed symmetry between apposing sides.  Conspicuously absent is any acknowledgement of the now 46 year long colonial occupation which criminalizes all forms of Palestinian resistance, and has led to the imprisonment of more than 750,000 Palestinians since 1967.

As former non-violent political prisoner Mahmoud told me:

“In the eyes of the media, internationals and especially the Israelis Palestinian’s are criminals, guilty until proven innocent…in other places I hear it goes the other way.”

Israeli Prisoner Policy and the Peace Process

Since Oslo there have been numerous high profile prisoner releases, most notably the Gilad Shalit swap that saw the return of over 1000 Palestinians for a single Israeli hostage.  The massive inequity of the exchange notwithstanding, the history of prisoner releases has questionable credentials in facilitating any kind of peace in Palestine, even though prisoner releases and amnesty guarantees have been a foundation to attaining peace in other colonial conflicts  (South Africa and Ireland).  As prisoner and human rights association Addameer sates: “Historically speaking this policy of prisoner’s releases has proven that it is not truly a “goodwill gesture” to build trust during negotiations, but rather is used as a tool by the Israeli Government to manipulate the prisoners issues and distract from their cores issues and demands.”

104 total prisoners will be freed in the coming months  “depending on progress in the talks.”  These types of “gestures” have, since 1993, seen the release of over 23,000 Palestinian prisoners, a seemingly large number until you compare it to the 80,000 that have been arrested during the same period.  During the Annapolis peace process 1199 prisoner were released between 2007 and 2008.   Yet during the same period the IDF arrested nearly 5000 prisoners, more than tripling the number originally released. It is highly questionable whether the release of these 26 will do anything to halt Israel’s policy of mass detention and arbitrary arrest, or guarantee the release of the nearly 5000 prisoners that currently reside in Military prisons inside Israel, their transfer out of Palestine illegal under international law. As a Fatah official in Ramallah said: “While we welcome this decision, we do not see how it could help the peace process, particularly in light of the fact that there are more than 5,000 Palestinians who are still in prison.”

According to Addameer’s report Reaching the ‘No-Peace’ Agreement: The Role of Palestinian Prisoner Releases in Permanent Status Negotiations  “Since the onset of the occupation in 1967 more than 750,000 Palestinian have been detained under military orders, nearly 40% of the male population.”

Administrative Detention and State Sponsored Hostage Taking

Mahmoud’s earlier comment about guilty until proven innocent is codified is Israeli law in the occupied Palestinian territories.  Since 1979 Israel has used military orders that enable the military to detain individuals without charge or trail.  From 1979 to 2000 this was done through the Emergency Power (detention) LawAmongst other things the law was used to detain hostages that were seen as valuable bargaining chips in the future (with Hezbollah in particular). The Supreme Court finally overturned the law in 2000.  Following the decision Chief Justice Barak was quoted as saying  “there is probably no State in the Western world that permits an administrative detention of someone who does not himself pose any danger to State Security.  Holding persons as bargaining cards, actually means holding them as hostages.”

Yet only two years later Israeli Knesset approved the controversial Incarceration of Unlawful Combatants law, which according to Addameer is “a means of legalizing the hostage taking policies that had been disavowed in 2000 by the Israeli Supreme Court.”  As the organizations director Sahar told me in a phone interview “there release of only 26 or the 104 is telling.  Israel uses these prisoners are bargaining chips, conditional on the PA’s good behavior.”

This coupled with Israel longstanding use of Administrative detention (renewable 6 month period of detention without charge/trail) highlights a legal system that denies Palestinian’s their fundament right to due process.  The rational of security, which legitimizes Administrative attention, also contributes to the criminalization of all forms of resistance in Palestine, expressed through the continued incarcerating of non-violent activists, scholars, children, and Palestinian athletes.   Administrative detention is used regularly by the Israeli authorities as a form of political detention, enabling the authorities to arbitrarily detain political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, and that the practice is used to punish them for their views and suspected political affiliations when they have not committed any crime”,  statement from Amnesty International.

The Peace Talks

If the prisoner release has been viewed as a figurative  “pat on the back” from Netanyahu to Abbass, then the announcement of 3000 new settlement units since last Thursday can only be described as slap in the face.  This dichotomous action is entirely consistent with Israeli policy since the Oslo agreement whereby prison releases are coupled with continued settlement construction and mass imprisonment of the occupied population.  Since the Oslo Accords some 23000 Palestine prisoners have been released as goodwill gestures to facilitate peace. Yet during the same period 80,000 Palestinian were arrested, while the settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has more than doubled since 1993, standing at 500,000 today.  Considering settlements are physically undermining the viability of a future Palestinian state, and 5000 still languish in Israeli jails, the importance of Netanyahu’s goodwill gesture to release 26 prisoners is questionable.

As Addameer director said “Prisoner releases are of central importance toward a lasting peace, yet Israel continued to treat the issues a public relations opportunity and a means to achieve political gains.”

The Essential Terrorist

In Ramallah, Palestine a jubilant crowd greeted the 14 West Bank prisoners freed on Tuesday.  On the opposite side of the wall Israelis gathered to protest the release of the prisoners described by the media as murderers, Arab terrorists,” and men with  “Jewish blood on their hands.”  And while the violence perpetrated by these men is lamentable even horrific, it is stripped of its context- obfuscated from its origins-occupation and the Israeli settler project that continues unhindered today.   The condemnation of these crimes is accurate, but they need to be contextualized, as the violence in in other Settler colonial states (South Africa, Algeria, or Ireland) has been.  And in a conflict that has lasted nearly half a century and taken the lives of 8000 Palestinian and 1500 Israelis since 1988, it is hard to imagine what the release of 26 men might do for peace.

Sam Gilbert is a journalist based in Ramallah.

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