A month ago, a small hope beat in the hearts of the five children of the al-Haija family from the Jenin refugee camp, whose parents and eldest brother are incarcerated in an Israeli prison. The children heard that Israel was about to release prisoners. They were convinced that their mother, Asmaa, who has been imprisoned for nearly six months without a trial and is suffering from a tumor in her head, would be released immediately. They hoped their father, Jamal, the Hamas spokesman in Jenin, would also be among those freed, as he has already served much of his sentence.
The parents have not seen their children since their arrest and have not been allowed to make even one phone call to them. Neighbors saw to it that the family's apartment, which was demolished by missiles when the Israeli army invaded the camp, was repaired ahead of the parents' return, so the children were able to come home after being without one for a year and a half. However, the days have gone by without any sign of the parents' homecoming.
Nearly two months have gone by since Israel promised to release Palestinian prisoners, but apart from Ahmed Jabara, who was released after spending 27 years in jail, and Suleiman Abu Mutalak, who was released because he is a friend of the Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, very few have been freed. Israel is in no hurry. A ministerial committee was formed, the Shin Bet drew up lists, the ministers expressed their reservations, Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman made an obscene remark, the Knesset debated the subject, the General Staff was convened, the news media inflamed the emotions against the release - and nothing happened. Even the 350 prisoners whose release was agreed on are still in prison.
And really, what's the rush? Abu al-Haija's children can wait. The thousands of prisoners and their tens of thousands of relatives, and with them the entire Palestinian nation, which is eagerly awaiting the prisoners' release, can wait. We alone, as usual, will decide unilaterally the scale and timing of the releases.
It is interesting to see how a public that is ultra-sensitive to the fate of its sons, that is capable of endangering the lives of many soldiers in order to free one abducted individual, that was ready to pay a high price in return for the release of a few captured soldiers and has created an international ruckus for years in the demand to receive the bodies of soldiers missing in action, is able to blithely ignore the same sentiment that exists in another nation. Totally self-centered, never seeing the suffering of the other, there is no one among us to stand up and assert publicly and vigorously that the Palestinian prisoners are heroes to their people just as our soldiers are heroes to us, and that they must be released immediately if we are truly bent on peace.
There is no other action Israel can take today to bring about an immediate change in the attitude of the Palestinian public toward it than the release of thousands of prisoners, yes, thousands. To begin with, 1,000 of them are in administrative detention - arrest without trial - and therefore should not be incarcerated in the first place. Even a first step involving the release of a few hundred prisoners could be valuable, especially if they include well-known names, who are considered heroes by their people. Above all, this means Marwan Barghouti, whose release as a gesture of goodwill for his efforts on behalf of the hudna could have an enormous positive impact. But Israel is fudging the process and wrecking any prospect of a new spirit in the relations between the sides.
There is nothing easier today than to ignite hope in the hearts of the Palestinians. After such hard years, any appearance of change inspirits them. This was clear after the publication of the U.S. administration's road map, too. If Israel wanted, it could strengthen this hope. Doing so would work to its benefit and to the benefit of peace. If, for example, all the roads in the West Bank were immediately opened - in any case their closure has nothing to do with security needs - the effect would be powerful indeed.
Every action Israel takes at its initiative, and not as an American constraint, will work in its favor. In contrast, every hope that is dashed will generate bitter and dangerous disappointment. The road map is already a month old, but Israel has hardly done anything connected to its demands, other than staging the false show of "evacuating" outposts.
There hasn't been a large-scale terrorist attack in Israel since June 11. Bethlehem and Gaza are relatively quiet, and there is a great reduction in the number of warnings about terrorist attacks. What is Israel doing as this is happening? Waiting. "Gaining" time. The prime minister is in Norway, the chief of staff is in the U.S. There's no rush.
There may be no rush in Israel, but there certainly is among the Palestinians. Whereas in Israel the cease-fire has already begun to have an effect in day-to-day life, nothing has changed in the territories. There is not one place there where people are leading a normal life. The cruel earth barriers cut off the villages, the soldiers' checkpoints keep the cities off limits, cars and ambulances make their way across rough dirt trails, unemployment is breaking records and with it poverty and malnutrition.
Israel continues to make arrests night after night in operations that frequently involve unnecessary killing and has not ceased its unnecessary and infuriating demolition of houses. An entire nation is imprisoned, humiliated and starved, in conditions which few nations are familiar with - but there's no rush. Soon enough everything will revert to the way it was and erupt anew, and again we will be able to blame the Palestinians for missing another golden opportunity, and only our hands will be clean, as usual.
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