For Palestinians, Release of Prisoners Who Are Israeli Citizens Is Key

The release of Israeli Arabs jailed for over 20 years will prove the two sides are able to put the past behind them and ready the ground for a peace agreement.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had to show Fatah and the other PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) organizations an achievement in order to quiet the many voices who oppose the resumption of negotiations with Israel without securing a settlement freeze, according to Fatah and PLO members.

For Palestinians, one of the biggest failures of the Fatah leadership -which signed on to the interim agreement almost 20 years ago, was not securing the release of Palestinian prisoners; specifically those with the heaviest prison terms, whose release was not stipulated as a condition for signing the agreement. Only when the oversight became clear after publication of the "Declaration of Principles" between the PLO and Israel, did the issue of releasing prisoner reach the negotiation table during the Gaza-Jericho agreement (signed in Cairo in May 1994), but from a position of Palestinian weakness.

The veteran prisoners, their families and friends in Fatah and the PLO, have all blamed the Palestinian leadership abroad for neglecting the prisoners, accusing its members of being out of touch with what it is like to be a prisoner and that neither they nor their children have had to give up their freedom in the fight against the Israeli occupation.

During the 1990s - when Israel started releasing thousands of prisoners and detainees that were put in jail during the First Intifada and prior – Palestinian negotiators made two primary claims when they asked to release prisoners convicted of murder and manslaughter: That their direct commanders, the head of which was Yasser Arafat, sent them into this armed struggle, and are now free and meeting with Israelis regularly. They claimed this was an unfair and unjust distinction. Their second claim was that the release of "heavy" prisoners will significantly strengthen Palestinian public faith in the entire process, especially since the large majority of the prisoners are members of PLO organizations and the Fatah that supported the Oslo Peace Agreements.

Israeli negotiators insisted on making a distinction between Palestinians that killed other Palestinians accused of being collaborators with Israel, and Palestinians that killed Jews. The first large group to be released and the last were defined as those "with blood on their hands" that cannot be released. For Palestinians, all the security prisoners are in effect soldiers, that sacrificed themselves for the national good, following orders from senior military and political ranks.

"The number of Israelis that Palestinian prisoners have killed is much smaller than the number of Palestinian civilians that senior Israeli soldiers and commanders have killed in the same period," a relative of one of the prisoners told Haaretz. "This is something Israelis must understand." The veteran prisoners are the oldest (over 50 years old). Some have been in jail for 30 years or more, and many are suffering from various diseases.

Relatives of the 14 prisoners who are citizens of Israel have been under a lot of stress the last two weeks due to conflicting reports. They were in constant contact with the Palestinian Authority in order to ensure that this time their loved ones would not be abandoned. These prisoners have suffered a twofold discrimination:

As opposed to prisoners incarcerated for criminal activity, or Jewish prisoners (including those convicted of murdering Palestinians), as security prisoners, the conditions of their incarceration have not been eased – i.e. phone contact with their families or vacation, nor have their prison sentences been reduced. And as citizens and residents of Israel – even those who have not been convicted of manslaughter or murder – they were not released along with their counterparts jailed during the Oslo process. For the last 20 years, the Palestinians have not succeeded in convincing the Israeli side that releasing prisoners who are citizens of Israel will prove the two sides are able to put the past behind them in order to ready the ground for a peace agreement.

The PLO's negotiating office said Saturday that there is no room for Israeli surprises regarding news that the Netanyahu government has agreed to release 104 prisoners, among them 14 Israeli citizens. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has understood that their complete release is the key for restarting peace talks, and this is what he promised to Abbas, a PLO official said.

Palestinians holding placards and photographs depicting Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a protest.Credit: Reuters

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