Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on June 15, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement last week that he was going to going to toughen conditions for Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, Haaretz has learned that the prime minister did not actually change anything about the policy of academic studies for Palestinian prisoners.

Under pressure on the eve of Gilad Shalit's fifth anniversary in captivity, Netanyahu told the President's Conference in Jerusalem last Thursday that "masters in murder and doctorates in terrorism" would no longer be available in Israeli prisons.

But after talking with prisoners and the Israel Prison Service, Haaretz found that the moves announced by Netanyahu were actually taken over a year ago. Also, the convicted terrorists - to whom he promised to give everything guaranteed by international law but nothing more - have been unable to access academic education for over a year.

The Prison Service banned registration for new Open University courses last year, and the orders were reiterated several weeks ago.

Yesterday, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch made a half-protest about the recent hype around the prisoner rights. "Recently there have been many statements in the media about stopping the summer camp for security prisoners, tightening conditions and more," he said at a municipal police ceremony in Givatayim. "I'd like to update you that for over a year now, I've been leading a policy on security prisoners, a clear and uncompromising policy. They'll be given everything provided for by international treaties and court rulings, and beyond that for a while now there's been no benefits, parties and luxuries. Some talk and some do - I prefer to keep on doing." Whom Aharonovitch meant in the last comment is anybody's guess. Netanyahu's aides and the Prison Service spokeswoman, for their part, insisted yesterday that the decision was a new one, made in the past few weeks and argued that meetings of minutes with Prison Service officials would prove so. The Prime Minister's Office and the Prison Service spokeswoman claimed that new courses were still open to prisoner registration, and that academic studies will only be stopping now.

Netanyahu's spin found surprising allies within Hamas, however, with the organization rushing to protest over his statements. Senior officials in the organization, who have known for a while that their prisoners - as well as Fatah men - are barred from registration to academic courses made angry protests to the media over the weekend, with Netanyahu apparently providing Hamas with a publicity opportunity. The organization leaped on it, telling the Palestinian public that its prisoners were being persecuted by the "occupation regime," while Fatah prisoners were being pampered with excessive privileges.

Ever since Netanyahu made the comments last Thursday, Hamas has noticeably stepped up its efforts to rebuild the status of its prisoners. After years in which the prison leadership gradually lost its clout to the benefit of the military and diplomatic leadership in Gaza and Damascus, the organization is now rushing to increase the prisoners' standing with the Palestinian public.

Hamas sources claimed in recent days that it was the Palestinian prisoners who refused the last deal proposed by German mediator Gerhard Conrad, because they insisted on the release of the last senior prisoners Israel is still reluctant to let go. In fact, the major obstacle to the deal is coming from the head of the military wing in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, and it would seem that he's also the one enforcing the uncompromising line upon the prisoners themselves.

Sources with close knowledge of the Hamas prison leadership, however, tell a completely different story. They say senior Hamas prisoners actually expressed willingness to be deported upon release, rather than go back to their West Bank homes, and will agree to further compromises, so long as the exchange goes forward and some 1,000 prisoners are eventually released.

Barring a surprising development from some unknown channel, the recent reports appear to have more to do with the fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit's capture and the escalating public pressure. It seems there isn't much in the talk around the coming days being critical for the swap.