A superfluous show of sovereignty
Maybe it's time to call on the government to drop its insistence on exercising sovereignty on Israeli citizens behind bars for security offenses, when these convicts' partners from the territories have already been set free.
The heart skips a beat every time news leaks about progress in the talks on releasing abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. This week we were again told that the negotiations are being energetically pursued, so our hopes rose again. But like so many times in the past, another source says one of the stumbling blocks is Israel's opposition to releasing any of its citizens as part of a prisoner exchange. Who are these prisoners and why is Hamas demanding their release? Information on them might help focus the campaign for Shalit's release and transform if from an improvised effort, full of empathy and good intentions but without defined content, into a clear demand for action.
Currently around 130 Palestinian citizens of Israel are incarcerated as security prisoners. Hamas does not insist that they all be released, but is concentrating on the 22 who have been in jail for more than 15 years, much longer than the average for offenders sentenced to life. Most of them were imprisoned before the Oslo Accords. None are Hamas members. Some are serving life sentences, although they were not convicted of murder or manslaughter. In most cases, a minimum term before eligibility for parole has not been set, in others it has been set at 40 or 45 years.
Israel sees Hamas' demand to free these people as crass interference in its internal affairs, but it also ignores the prisoners' pleas for parole, for the typical one-third of their sentences to be cut for good behavior, for furloughs so they can attend weddings or funerals of relatives, for conjugal visits with their spouses, or similar needs. As a result, their distress is close to all Palestinians' hearts. This is precisely the reason Hamas refuses to let the matter drop.
About two years ago, the long-serving security prisoners who are Israeli citizens wrote an emotional appeal to Knesset members. They quoted former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak on every prisoner's right in a decent society to hope for a chance to return to freedom. They do not have this right, they contend, with their fate falling between two stools: They are treated like any Palestinian prisoner behind bars for a security offense, but when Palestinians are released in various political deals, they are left out.
A good example is that of Mahmad and Mahmoud Jabarin, residents of Umm al-Fahm serving long terms for murdering a collaborator, whereas their accomplices in the killing, residents of Palestinian areas, were released almost 10 years ago.
"We see ourselves as citizens of the State of Israel and we support and believe in peace and oppose all forms of violence as a means of achieving peace," the two wrote in their appeal to the MKs. "This is our position not because we have suddenly become Lovers of Zion, but because we truly and honestly want and hope for peace and we are even trying to help achieve the end of the bloody conflict between our nation and our state .... We believe that many citizens, when they are presented with a picture of our plight, will be ready to join the effort and contribute their part to change the attitude toward us in a manner that is appropriate for a Jewish democratic state."
But this sincere and poignant appeal to the Israeli people and its elected representatives did not receive even minimal attention. Perhaps the time has come to listen to it and call on the government to drop its insistence on exercising sovereignty on this issue.
The writer lectures at Tel Aviv University's Philosophy Department and heads the Israeli Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners.