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.