"We won't make the same mistake we made with Oslo - this time we will demand full release of the Palestinian security prisoners," says Palestinian Minister for Prisoners Affairs Hisham Abd al-Raziq, using the term POWs in normal Palestinian terminology.
Many Palestinian leaders agree with him. Already, in the Palestinian negotiations over the hudna, the cease-fire, the issue of the prisoners has come up. Razak says that soon, when the implementation of the road map begins to be discussed, the Palestinians will demand that ahead of the permanent agreement and the establishment of the independent Palestinian state in two and a half years time, all the Palestinians imprisoned by Israel - with no exceptions - should be released.
According to Palestinian data, there are some 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Israel refers to them as security prisoners; the Palestinians consider them prisoners of war. More than half, some 53 percent, are from Fatah; 38 percent are Hamas, and the rest are from Islamic Jihad and various leftist organizations. Most are held in IDF detention centers and prisons, divided half and half between the two, but a minority is in Shin Bet and police interrogation centers. Some 1,300 are administrative detainees, jailed without any court procedures. There are 72 women who have been tried on security offenses, and some 200 youths under the age of 18.
The most prominent prisoner is Marwan Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the leading members of the Fatah in the West Bank. Public opinion polls among Palestinians show that he is very popular in the Palestinian street. Since his arrest he is considered the second most popular political figure after Arafat and many regard him as the natural candidate to inherit the PA chairman's role some time in the future.
From his jail cell in Ramle Prison and using envoys, Barghouti is deeply involved in contacts between the Fatah and the opposition groups. The Palestinian leadership believes he'll be released soon, after a conversation on the subject between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak promised that in exchange for Barghouti's release, Egypt would release Azzam Azzam, the Israeli in Egyptian prison after an espionage conviction.
But there are other high-level prisoners in Israeli jails, like Hussam Hader, a PLC member from Nablus' Balata refugee camp, who is very active on the refugee issue. Despite being a Fatah member, he has been opposed to the PA leadership for years. He is an administrative detainee, held in an Israeli police station. Abdul Rahim Maluah, a member of the PLO executive from the Popular Front, is also an administrative detainee at Megiddo Prison. And then there's a Hamas leader from Ramallah, Hassan Yusuf, jailed in Be'er Sheva.
Razak says that officially, the Palestinian Authority does not distinguish between the prisoners with regard to their political party affiliation. As far as he's concerned, the veteran prisoners come first. That's a group of about 450 prisoners who have been in jail since before 1994, the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA.
There has been a lot of discussions between Israel and the Palestinians over prisoner releases, but ultimately, the decision who would be released remained in the hands of the Israeli government, and it chose who to free. "This time it will be different," Razak promises. "The releases will be in full coordination with us."
There was a lot of excitement in the territories with the release of the oldest of the prisoners, Muhammed Abu Jabara, known as Abu Sukar. He belongs to Fatah and was jailed 27 years, for his role in a bombing in Kikar Zion. He was released two weeks ago after a conversation between Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Abu Sukar received a hero's welcome in Ramallah - his hometown is a village north of the city. Along with him, Israel released Teiser Haled, a PLO executive committee member from the Democratic Front, who had been under arrest a few months as an administrative detainee.
Issa Karaka, of Bethlehem, is head of the Prisoner Society, the Palestinian organization that deals with prisoner issues. He calls the prisoners "youngsters whose only fault is they could not adapt to living under occupation." Last week, Al Quds published a poetic article in honor of Abu Sukar, describing how the freed prisoner reached Ramallah after 27 years in jail to discover a new reality he never knew: settlements and settlers, bypass roads, checkpoints, and the Palestinian people not allowed to leave their homes except on the way from funeral to funeral.
Last week, Ziad Abu-Ein, a senior Fatah man from Ramallah, was released from administrative detention. He was held in Ketziot, which the Palestinians call Negev prison. He was under detention for 14 months, and said there was a harsh atmosphere in the prison because of the difficult conditions. But worst of all, he says, is that because of the intifada, the authorities, meaning the defense establishment and the Red Cross, are unable to organize family visits.
He says most of the prisoners haven't seen their families for more than 18 months. Once released, his home became a Mecca for pilgrimages by Palestinians welcoming him home, including members of the Abbas government for whom the prisoner issue is very important.
The families are a very powerful lobby in Palestinian society. Last week, there were solidarity demonstrations and strikes with the prisoners in Ramallah and elsewhere. Young people shackled themselves with handcuffs, covered their eyes with blindfolds, and sat behind barbed wire, dressed in shirts that carried badges with the names and pictures of individual prisoners.
Some say that Arafat should be dealing with the prisoner issue much more than in the past. One Fatah activist said that Arafat once was busy with all aspects of the government, and now he has little to do. He was forced to hand over the financial matters to Salam Fayad, the PA finance minister.
Security matters are in Mohammed Dahlan's hands, and the political issue is handled by Abbas. They go from place to place, from summit to conference in Gaza, and Arafat sits in his office with nothing to do except to deal with organizations, and the prisoners' issue is the most pressing of all.
"Who knows, maybe Arafat thinks that if the prisoners are released from the Israeli jails, he'll be let out of his jail in the Muqata," said an East Jerusalem journalist. But the entire Palestinian leadership believes that without a sweeping release of the prisoners, it will be impossible to reach an agreement with Israel.
Only freeing the prisoners will be proof to the Palestinian public that the sides have crossed over from a state of war to another process, a peace process. After Oslo, most of the prisoners remained in Israeli jails, and many in the territories think that was one of the main reasons for the loss of faith in the peace process, and ultimately, its failure.