Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders, like most Palestinians, reacted coolly to the Israeli decision to free some 424 Palestinian prisoners. PA Chairman Yasser Arafat described the decision as a “scandalous deception”.
“This is a scandalous deception. They [Israel] arrested twice as many people during the past few days, 239 in Hebron alone,” said Arafat, while addressing supporters in Ramallah on Monday.
Even the usually more circumspect PA Premier Mahmoud Abbas criticised “this modus operandi of deception and cheating” on Israel’s part. “They are equivocating and bluffing which means they are not sincere about implementing the roadmap,” he said.
Indeed, among the 424 prisoners slated to be released on Wednesday, 82 had been convicted of criminal offences, including car theft and entering Israel without possessing a valid permit. Of the remaining 342 prisoners, 159 are actually administrative detainees who have been detained without charge or trial in violation of international law.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to hold as many as 1,100 administrative detainees.
What is irking the Palestinians most, however, is the fact that the jail terms of nearly all the 183 convicted prisoners Israel has agreed to free have either expired or are about to expire.
According to Issa Qaraqi, director of the Palestinian Prisoner Club, of the 183 due to be freed, there is only one prisoner whose jail term will expire a year from now, with the jail terms of the rest (182) due to expire in a few days or a few weeks.
Palestinian official Hisham Abdul-Razzaq, who is in charge of the Prisoners Portfolio in the Abbas government, is furious at the way Israel has dealt with the issue. “They didn’t even consult with us, they are ignoring us completely. The way they deal with us is unacceptable,” he said.
Israel’s conspicuous parsimony and perceived deception on an issue as sensitive and emotional as the release of Palestinian prisoners seem to be galvanising the Palestinian public anew.
Indeed, for the past two weeks, Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza have been witnessing daily protests and demonstrations demanding the release of “all” the prisoners, without discrimination due to political affiliation. While Israel and the United States are the usual villains, the reformist Palestinian government has been increasingly blamed for not doing enough to free the prisoners and especially for “succumbing to Israeli deception”.
Sensing the growing public impatience and indignation over the prisoners’ plight as well as the continuation of crippling Israeli restrictions within the West Bank, Abbas reportedly decided to cancel a proposed meeting with Sharon, which was to take place Wednesday.
The symbolic and desperate step will not do much to soothe mounting public anger which is also forcing the resistance groups, including Hamas, to “reconsider” the suspension of “resistance activities,” a reference to the three-month hudna (or cease-fire) declared on 29 June.
According to Islamist sources in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad plan to hold “intensive meetings” in Gaza in the coming days to reevaluate their posture in light of Israel’s non-compliance with truce conditions, including the refusal to withdraw the Israeli army from Palestinian population centres in the West Bank.
This stance, declared by the Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz on Monday 4 August, coincided with what looks like a resumption of the Israeli policy of assassination against Palestinian Intifada activists.
This week, the Israeli army killed two Palestinians near Tulkarm in what eyewitnesses described as “cold- blooded murder”. The new killings brought to 10 the number of Palestinians, mostly civilians, killed by the Israeli army since the conclusion of the truce on 29 June. As many as a hundred other Palestinians were injured by Israeli army bullets in the same period. Last week, an Israeli soldier in the northern West Bank “accidentally” opened fire from a heavy machinegun mounted on an armoured personnel carrier on Palestinian cars at an army roadblock, instantly killing a five-year-old child and wounding his six and seven- year-old sisters.
In an apparent reaction to the killing and other Israeli provocations, Palestinian guerillas on 3 August opened fire on a settler car near the Jewish settlement of Gilo south of Jerusalem, wounding four settlers. Capitalising on this seemingly isolated incident, Israel demanded a “sustained and effective operation against those involved in terrorism”.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the armed branch of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it came as a warning to Israel against “continuing to hound and target our fighters”.
Israel had been pressuring the PA to send some 20 activists from the armed resistance group to the desert town of Jericho or to Gaza as a precondition for an Israeli pullback from Ramallah which would ease Yasser Arafat’s 19-month confinement.
Initially, Arafat agreed to confine the 20 “wanted” activists to a single room to stave off a threat by the Al- Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to break the hudna in case they were transferred to Jericho.
However, 19 of the 20 men were eventually quietly transferred to a Jericho prison in accordance with a tacit understanding with representatives of the sponsors of the roadmap (US, UN, EU and Russia).
Moreover, Israel’s continued construction of the “apartheid wall” in the West Bank, despite ostensibly disingenuous American objections, is effectively killing the roadmap and evaporating whatever modicum of hope among Palestinians that the Bush administration will rein in Israel.
The Palestinians had hoped that Bush’s public criticisms of the wall, voiced during Abbas’s visit to the White House on 25 July, would be translated into a meaningful pressure on Israel to stop construction on the wall. However, Bush’s remarks during his joint press conference with visiting Ariel Sharon last week, in which he spoke of a “fence” rather than a “wall” showed that the American president was adopting the Israeli position.
As Israel continues to build the wall and create new realities on the ground, and with Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints strangulating the daily lives of Palestinians, a fresh incendiary atmosphere is being fostered in the occupied territories.