The Sets for the Prisoner Release Show

The Palestinians view every security prisoner as a prisoner of war. Indirectly, they accept the symmetry implied in Israel's use of the word "war" to describe the events of the last three years.

It comes as no surprise that Israel released the Palestinian prisoners and detainees that it did: people convicted of minor security offenses whose terms were up soon in any case; administrative detainees who are being held without trial, and without the right to present a defense, by order of army or Shin Bet security service commanders; car thieves and laborers convicted of being in Israel illegally. It is also no surprise that Israel is presenting this as a far-reaching gesture.

What is surprising is that senior Palestinian officials were shocked, or at least said that they were, and that from their shock, one could conclude that they had expected more - that they, through their demand for prisoner releases, once again led their public into a whirlpool of vain hopes.

The Palestinians view every security prisoner as a prisoner of war. Indirectly, they accept the symmetry implied in Israel's use of the word "war" to describe the events of the last three years. In their view, an armed Palestinian is a soldier just like an Israeli soldier: Each has his own weapons, derived from the balance of power and the different technological and operational capabilities; each has the cruelty inherent in his role.

The one, unfortunate, difference is that Palestinian soldiers can be captured and arrested as a result of Israel's military superiority, which stems from the fact that the 1967 occupation made Israel's army the sovereign power in the territories, and it therefore considers itself authorized to try those who violate the occupation's rules.

For Israel to release those whom the Palestinians want freed most of all - the "serious" offenders - it would have to accept the view that they are prisoners of war. That has been the Palestinian expectation ever since 1994, the height of the Oslo process. But even then, when Israel released a comparatively large number of prisoners and detainees, it did not recognize them as "prisoners of war;" it refused to release prisoners convicted of murdering Jews; it dragged the release process out over several years; and it included ordinary criminals in the quota of those freed.

There was no good reason for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan and Minister for Prisoner Affairs Hisham Abdel Razeq to assume that Israel would behave differently this time around. After all, this is not a period of optimism accompanying the dawn of a "peace process," but a time when, following a series of suicide bombings, a majority of the Israeli public has no doubts about the military option that Israel has chosen for the last three years.

Here and there, Palestinians can be found who furtively criticize the priority that was given to the request for prisoner releases in the current round of talks. They are critical precisely because they knew that there was no reason to expect anything different from Israel, and because they know that Abu Mazen and his ministers also knew this. In their view, keeping the political and media focus on the issue of the settlements (and not merely the unauthorized outposts) would have yielded greater political gains.

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons. For many, prison was where they forged their political identities and where they rose up the ladder of their chosen organizations. And ever since 1967 - before suicide bombings became the fashion among young Palestinians - the prisoners have been viewed as those who made the ultimate sacrifice: their freedom. It is thus very difficult to publicly criticize efforts to obtain their release.

The Palestinian public knows that prison conditions are now worse than ever before. Particularly problematic is the fact that despite repeated appeals to the courts, the Israeli authorities do not permit regular family visits.

Therefore, it is also difficult for people to publicly voice the query: Why did prisoners who were due to be released soon in any case not refuse to be freed in the context of the "show" that Israel staged, in order to at least spoil the image of the gesture? Why was there not a single organization whose leaders dared to ask this of them? Does this not indicate just how weak the political-organizational consciousness of most of the prisoners is, and to what degree the Fatah leadership lacks moral authority over them?

It seems that the request for prisoner releases stemmed primarily from internal needs: After the prisoners were completely forgotten in the 1993 Declaration of Principles, Abu Mazen, one of the architects of Oslo, had to prove that he has learned his lesson. The prisoners and their representatives have enormous political weight in the Fatah movement, and Abu Mazen and Dahlan need the support of that layer of Fatah activists that is umbilically connected to the prisoner issue. They were also obliged to request the release of prisoners from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, so that they would not be accused of discriminating on the basis of organizational affiliation. It seems that they were not thinking of the outcome at all, but merely of the request.

They raged against the international media show that Israel, in their view, made of the release, but it was they who built the stage and the sets for Israel to act as it did.