Analysis |

Where the Palestinian Hunger Strike and Pardoning Terrorists Align

Former head of the Israeli army's missing soldiers unit says bill to prevent pardoning terrorists would severely curtail government's room to maneuver when acting to rescue abducted soldiers.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian in Gaza who has stopped eating in solidarity with the hunger-striking administrative detainees, June 2, 2014.
A Palestinian in Gaza who has stopped eating in solidarity with the hunger-striking administrative detainees, June 2, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The lengthy hunger strike by Palestinian detainees, alongside the cabinet’s approval Sunday of a bill aimed at preventing terrorist murderers from being pardoned as part of a negotiated deal, once again raises the question of how Israel ought to deal with Palestinian terrorists – a question that was pushed aside after the 2011 prisoner swap that freed kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

The hunger strike isn’t receiving much media attention yet, but what currently seems like a crisis under control could deteriorate swiftly if one of the detainees dies.

So far, the strike has had little impact outside Israel’s prisons. The Palestinian Authority did threaten to ask the United Nations to send a delegation to examine the strikers’ condition, but it hasn’t actually done so. And Palestinian demonstrations marking the 47th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the territories last week neither attracted large crowds nor focused on the issue of the hunger-striking prisoners.

Nevertheless, the prisoners are a top Palestinian concern, an issue that unites all segments of Palestinian society. As a result, a joint struggle on behalf of the hunger strikers could serve both Fatah and Hamas, which established a unity government last week.

The Palestinian public is currently preoccupied with preparations for Ramadan, which begins toward the end of June. But should one of the hunger strikers die, the public agenda in the West Bank could change radically.

That’s why updates on the condition of the strikers – about 70 of whom have already been hospitalized – are included in every situation assessment the defense establishment conducts.

At the recommendation of the Shin Bet security service, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a hard line on the strike, including by pushing legislation to allow the strikers to be force-fed. And Sunday’s cabinet approval of a bill that would authorize the courts to prohibit terrorist murders from being pardoned fits nicely with this approach.

Habayit Hayehudi, the party that sponsored the bill, claims it would improve Israel’s bargaining position in any future negotiations over a kidnapped Israeli. But security professionals strongly disagree.

Col. (res.) Lior Lotan, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ missing soldiers unit, considers the bill misguided and dangerous. Israel’s huge concessions in the last three prisoner exchanges, he said, stemmed from the lack of any possibility of rescuing the abducted men by force. In contrast, when Israel did use military force to rescue hostages in the 1970s, kidnappers responded by moderating their demands.

Lotan believes the bill would severely curtail the government’s room to maneuver. “It’s like a hospital director who, frustrated by unsuccessful operations, forces surgeons to operate with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their backs,” he said.

Noting that Israel has used foreign mediators to arrange all its previous prisoner swaps, he also warned that overseas officials would be reluctant to play this role in the future if they knew the government’s wiggle room was so limited.

Lotan argued that the government should be sending the opposite message – an absolute commitment to free kidnapped Israelis, whether by military action or a deal. And to do this, it must retain maximum freedom to maneuver.

Moreover, he said, Israelis ought to demand courage, professionalism and commitment from their government. Instead, he argued, “This bill reflects a lack of confidence in the ministers, and creates an absurd situation in which they are freed of the burden of coping with difficult decisions.”

Previous hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners sparked unrest and support rallies, such as this one in Nablus, May 2012.Credit: AP

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