Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Israel only releases prisoners to those who attack it

Walid Salem
Commentary by
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The Daily Star-Arab media

In the 15 years 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, implementation of the peace process didn't go well. The number of prisoners increased instead of decreased. In that context, partial releases of prisoners became gestures and were devoid 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 slated 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 whom two had "blood on their hands" - from attacks that took place in the 1970s - was just one more example of partial process divorced from progress in the peace process. It was an attempt to do something partial in the hope that this would 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 Hizbullah, in which the Lebanese group managed to secure the release of all Lebanese prisoners in successive exchanges. Of course, Hizbullah 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 to 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 Palestinian Authority for Palestinian Liberation Organization (mainly Fatah) 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 Fatah 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.

Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

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