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The release of prisoners is the best way for PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to distinguish himself from his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, according to Yohanan Tsoref, a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a former consultant on Arab affairs for the Civil Administration.

"It is in Israel's supreme interest that Abu Mazen (Abbas) appear to his public as someone who can achieve more for his people through dialogue and directness than Arafat could. The release of prisoners is the optimal way to demonstrate this," Tsoref said during a conference organized by the Van Leer Institute late last month that focused on the prisoner release issue and how it can promote the peace process.

"The Palestinians judge Israel's intentions according to its actions regarding prisoners," Tsoref said. "Particularly at a time when Abbas is coping with the violent pressures of Fatah militants and with the strictures of Palestinian Prime Minster Ahmed Qureia, he needs to receive political reinforcement," Tsoref said.

Over the past six years, the Van Leer Institute has held events in which released Palestinian prisoners participated. The institute's director, Shimshon Zelniker, was in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and handled the training of former prisoners, members of the African National Congress, to become active in public and social realms. Together with Amit Leshem, who works at the institute and also knew many released security prisoners, the two introduced Palestinian former prisoners with South African and Irish counterparts.

"The encounter taught us to what extent the release of prisoners contributes to the cease-fire and the making of agreements, but the release must be accompanied by political steps," Leshem said. In Ireland, "We met a lot of people with blood on their hands, who had blown each other up for years," he continued. "We heard the same motto we hear from the Palestinians: `We don't want our children to go through what we went through, we want a new future for our children.'"

The conference was an attempt to introduce to the Israeli public a demand that has not disappeared from the Palestinian agenda. Among the speakers were Orit Adato, former Prisons Service Commissioner, former minister Moshe Shahal and former Palestinian minister Hisham Abd al-Rizak. They all agreed that the term "blood on their hands" stymies any attempt at rational discussion. Moreover, when applied to Palestinians, it includes anyone who was a member of a cell, and covers events that resulted in not only the death, but also the wounding of a Jew. Abd al-Rizak said both sides had blood on their hands, but only Palestinians, as the weaker party, were punished for it.

Tsoref added that "unlike the Palestinians, we don't kill purposely, although too often civilians are killed. But they have religious rulings that permit the killing of civilians." Nevertheless, Tsoref said that "discussion should be rational, since there is an interest in catalyzing a process. Prisoner release is the only way to convey a sense of change to the individual and to families."

Conference speakers discussed the 8,000 Palestinians prisoners and "security detainees" held in Israel. The Palestinians prefer to focus on the demand to release anyone tried and sentenced for acts carried out before the Oslo Accords. Their continued imprisonment weighs heavily on the conscience of the current Palestinian leadership, who are all "graduates" of Israeli prisons. The leadership is subject to accusations by families of prisoners over abandonment and neglect.

"If prisoners who have been sitting in jail for 15, 20 years and more are not released, there is no point in negotiating the release of other prisoners," the new Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, told Haaretz. "We will not back any permanent status agreement that does not include relase of all Palestinian prisoners."

As the spokesman for prisoners and PA representative in negotiations with Israel, Abu Zaydeh spent long hours with Israelis, and has an understanding of their society. "It is not a matter of goodwill, but of necessity, if the ground is to be prepared for negotiations. If Israel refuses to release veteran prisoners who were guided in their actions by those in leadership positions who currently are steering the negotiations, what sort of message is that? Such a prisoner's son learns he has no chance of seeing his father freed. Instead, he hears the suggestion - think how you could act independently to free your father."