Throughout 40 years of occupation, the prisoners’ issue has always been a hugely important one in Palestinian society. Prisoners as a segment of society are highly credible in the eyes of a public that respects the acts of resistance to the Israeli occupation that put them in jail in the first place.
Until the signing of Oslo and the advent of the Palestinian Authority, Israel undertook such widespread arrest campaigns that it was exceptional to find families without relatives either in prison or who were ex-prisoners. The number came down with the Oslo agreement, which stipulated the release of all prisoners. Still, and in contradiction to Oslo, only half were actually released in the mid-1990s.
The number of prisoners increased again with the renewal of confrontations in 2000 and onward. The number now is roughly 11,000 and includes different categories of prisoners. Some are convicted either for their political activities or their armed resistance. There are minors, a number that always lies in the hundreds. Then there is the category of prisoners Israel calls “administrative detainees”. These are prisoners against whom no charges have been brought, for whom no trial is certain and whose sentence can be renewed six months at a time. Some administrative detainees stay incarcerated like this for several years.
The release of prisoners has always been at the top of the agenda of any Palestinian political party or government. It was President Mahmoud Abbas’ main promise to the public in his election campaign in 2005, and before that when he was prime minister.
Israel, however, has proven itself willing to release prisoners only in exchange for Israeli captives, dead or alive. This happened more than once, when Palestinian factions managed to capture Israeli soldiers during the first Lebanon war, or when Hizballah did the same and exchanged them for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.
This experience has taught Palestinian factions to pursue such a method in order to secure the release of prisoners. It is unfortunate that Israel is not willing to release prisoners in the context of peace agreements or as a confidence-building measure during negotiations.
In exchange for the captured Israeli soldier in Gaza, Gilad Shalit, Palestinian factions have demanded the release of those who have spent more than 20 years behind bars as well as female and underage prisoners. But with its own categorization of prisoners as those with or without “blood on their hands”, Israel has been dragging out negotiations over an exchange. The Israeli position is unusual. The exchange of prisoners is a normal procedure in wars and conflict situations, and Israel itself recently implemented the principle with Hizballah. Palestinians are left to conclude that Israel is not really interested in closing a deal to release Shalit.
There are of course internal Israeli political considerations behind that. The current Israeli government is weak. On the one hand, that means it needs Shalit’s release to bolster its popularity, but on the other, it is afraid of paying the political price for doing so. So far, it is the fear of opposition criticism that is the tail wagging the dog.
In general, Israel fails to realize that imprisoning Palestinians has never been a useful strategy to reduce hostility, hatred and resistance. On the contrary, the more Palestinians in prison the greater the hostility. In addition, Palestinians know prisons as “universities”. These universities graduate the next generation of political and resistance leaders. Thus, the more Israel imprisons, the more it contributes to increasing the organized resistance to the Israeli occupation.
As in so many other areas, only an Israeli willingness to end the occupation and release prisoners in the context of a peace settlement consistent with international legality can bring Israel the peace it needs.