Prisoners as hostages

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Israel’s adamant refusal to free as many as 6,500 Palestinian political and resistance prisoners is once again galvanising the Palestinian public and infuriating resistance groups. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have warned this week that the fragile truce with Israel would be terminated if the prisoners were not released.

Earlier this week, the Israeli government agreed to release around 350 prisoners, including mostly “administrative detainees”, “agitators”, and prisoners whose prison sentences are about to expire.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, many of the detainees Israel plans to release could be classified as “prisoners of conscience” who have been in detention without charge or trial on the mere suspicion of encouraging or aiding resistance fighters.

What the Palestinians fear most is a repetition of the Israeli tactics during the “Oslo years”, when successive Israeli governments sought to keep thousands of Palestinian prisoners as bargaining chips, ostensibly in order to blackmail the Palestinian Authority and extract fundamental political concessions pertaining to such central issues as Jerusalem, settlements, and the right of return.

Such fears are reinforced by the Israeli government’s decision to adopt stringent criteria for releasing Palestinian detainees, which would effectively keep more than 90 per cent of the detainees behind bars.

According to the Israeli criteria, all prisoners who have killed or injured Israelis would not be released. And it doesn’t matter if the Israelis killed were soldiers attacking Palestinians, or paramilitary Jewish terrorists, or civilians, nor, indeed, if the killing was in self- defense or in the battlefield.

For Israel, all Palestinian fighters are “terrorists” and all Israelis killed are “victims of terror”. Moreover, prisoners affiliated with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are also to be doomed for open-ended incarceration. This, said one PA official on condition of anonymity, is the perfect prescription to provoke Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to break the cease-fire and resume the armed Intifada.

Likewise, detainees whom Israel deems might revert to active resistance in the future and those who are still undergoing “legal” proceedings, would not be freed.

More to the point, the 350 prisoners Israel plans to release would be freed in trickles, depending on the extent to which the Palestinian Authority fights “terror”. Adding insult to injury, Israeli Transportation Minister Avigdor Liberman urged the Sharon government to drown Palestinian POWs in the Dead Sea rather than release them. This is the same minister who last year urged the Israeli army to bomb Palestinian markets, banks, schools, hospitals and shopping centers for the purpose of driving them out of the country!

Interestingly, neither the Israeli prime minister nor any of his cabinet ministers bothered to criticise or even rebuke Liberman for these genocidal remarks.

The perceived Israeli blackmail over the prisoners’ issue has predictably provoked Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and outraged the Palestinian public as a whole.

“We demand and insist that all Palestinian prisoners and detainees be freed from Zionist jails. The Zionist regime alone bears full responsibility for the consequences of not freeing the prisoners,” warned Islamic Jihad leader Abudllah Al-Shami.

Likewise, Hamas spokesmen in Gaza and abroad also warned that the present truce would become “a thing of the past” if Israel continued to refuse to release Palestinian prisoners. To highlight their demands, Hamas and Islamic Jihad organised a massive protest in Gaza on Sunday in solidarity with the prisoners. The demonstration served as an unmistakable message to all those concerned, particularly the Palestinian government.

The prisoners themselves are also pressuring the Palestinian Authority to devote utmost attention to their plight. As many as 900 political and resistance prisoners appealed to the PA leadership on Monday to utterly reject the Israeli categorisation of the prisoners into those who have “Jewish blood on their hands” and those who don’t.

“How about the thousands of Israelis who murdered Palestinians, including children and women? Is Jewish blood more precious than our blood,” the prisoners asked in their appeal. The prisoners further insisted that they all be recognised as prisoners of war captured while defending their country, freedom and dignity.

The issue of the prisoners could be proven to be deal-maker or breaker depending on how the Israeli government intends to deal with it. Indeed, it would be very difficult to maintain the current cease-fire, let alone make genuine progress on the roadmap, if a satisfactory solution to the prisoners’ plight is not found.

Furthermore, continued Israeli intransigence in this regard is likely to embarrass and weaken the Abu Mazen government and create an incendiary situation throughout the occupied territories that could lead to the resumption of the Intifada.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government reportedly promised to “examine” the possibility of releasing imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti who has been held in an Israeli jail on suspicion of “leading the Intifada” and “masterminding terrorist attacks”.

The release of Barghouti would serve as a temporary boost for the Abbas government which badly needs to demonstrate to the Palestinian public that it is achieving something. However, the emotions surrounding the prisoners’ issue would continue to hang over the implementation of the roadmap.

This week, PA Minister for Internal Security Mohamed Dahlan met for the second time in less than a week with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

The two reportedly discussed further Israeli army redeployment from more West Bank towns. Mofaz described the meeting as “positive” while Dahlan dismissed the Israeli decision to release only 350 Palestinian prisoners as “too little and below our expectations.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian premier paid a courtesy visit this week to Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in the latter’s home in downtown Gaza. The “personal visit” reflected the new positive chemistry between the PA and Hamas, something the United States and Israel deeply and openly scorn.

Abbas, whose popularity has scored a certain rise in the past two weeks, was due to meet once again with Sharon to discuss further implementation of the roadmap.

Abbas plans to ask Sharon to withdraw Israeli forces from Hebron and Ramallah and lift Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank. He further plans to ask Sharon to stop Israeli incursions and sweeping arrests in the West Bank, something which Palestinian resistance groups view as a provocative violation of the cease-fire.

This week, the Israeli army arrested scores of Palestinians in Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin and Hebron, prompting one Palestinian commentator to remark that “for every Palestinian prisoner released, Israel arrests 10 Palestinians.”

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