A Regrettable Indifference

Even now, Israel refuses to discuss the essence of imprisonment of Palestinians as part of the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the struggle against it.

In Nablus, several dozen kilometers from the home of the family of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, lives the family of Palestinian prisoner Said al-Atabeh, which is also following shreds of information about the status of negotiations for the release of Shalit. They are also vacillating between hope that their son will be released, and worry and anxiety.

Al-Atabeh is the most veteran Palestinian prisoner, who has been jailed in Israel since 1977. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of commanding a military cell of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP): One of its members planted several explosive devices that blew up. Thirty-three people were wounded, and one died of his wounds. The man who planted the bombs, who was also sentenced to life, was released in the prisoner exchange deal in 1985. Blind fate determined that Al-Atabeh would remain in prison, because, at the last moment, Israel refused to release all the Palestinian lifers. Al-Atabeh's military and political superiors, Mamdouh Nofal and Yasser Abed Rabbo, returned to the Palestinian territories when the Oslo Accords were signed, and became known for their consistent support for a peace agreement with Israel. Together with them al-Atabeh left the DFLP and joined the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA).

Al-Atabeh is imprisoned on Israeli territory, in Ashkelon Prison, although international law forbids the imprisonment of members of an occupied nation in the territory of the occupying country. Like the other Palestinian prisoners, he is imprisoned as a criminal offender and not recognized as a prisoner of war. But he and his friends do not receive the rights of criminals, such as the basic right to family visits. Al-Atabeh's mother last visited him about a year ago, after not having seen him for five and a half years. For about three years, the military authorities did not allow residents of the West Bank, and primarily the northern West Bank, to visit their imprisoned loved ones.

Even now the visits of the families involve a great deal of suffering and arbitrary "security-related" refusals (even al-Atabeh's mother, who has difficult seeing and walking, was at a certain point defined as "prohibited for security-related reasons"). His sister was allowed to visit him for the first time after about seven years. The authorities do not allow his young nephews to visit him: They forbid those who are not first-degree family members (and friends) to visit Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinian prisoners are not even allowed to use a public phone, so their punishment includes a cruel and prolonged separation from their families.

It is, therefore, regrettable that when we speak about the cruelty of the captors of Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who are not even allowed to send a sign of life to their parents, we do not discuss the cruelty of our own prison and military authorities over the years, toward thousands of Palestinians and their families.

It is regrettable, even now, when the Palestinian prisoners are once again being mentioned in connection with the expected prisoner exchange deal, that there is little mention of the approximately 400 veterans among them who were imprisoned before the Oslo Accords, of which 78 were sentenced to life imprisonment. They are unlike criminals who have been sentenced to life for murder, and then released on parole, with one-third of their sentence off for good behavior, so their sentence is reduced almost automatically to 30 years. Life imprisonment for Palestinians is often imprisonment until death.

Israel's refusal to release the Palestinians convicted of murdering and wounding Jews, as part of the Oslo Accords, is one of the factors that weakened the status of the ruling Fatah party in the eyes of its public. This refusal portrayed the senior members of the Palestinian Authority, some of whom gave orders for the acts for which their activists and underlings were sent to prison, as having abandoned the wounded at the front. This refusal has served as an effective weapon in the hands of those opposed to the agreements, mainly in Hamas, who claimed that like the confiscation of lands and the building of the settlements, the failure to release veteran prisoners proves that Israel is not interested in reconciliation.

It is regrettable that, even now, Israel refuses to discuss the essence of imprisonment of Palestinians as part of the occupation of the Palestinian territories and the struggle against it. The essence of the occupation is attacking civilians, negating their rights to the point of undermining their right to live. But the occupation apparatus also appropriates the right to decide that anyone who opposes it is a criminal.

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Israel: The British, the whites in South Africa, the French, also portrayed those who were active in the resistance movement to their imposed rule as bloodthirsty terrorists. They also had difficulty understanding the argument that those same criminals with blood on their hands (whom the opposing side describes as freedom fighters) have the same right to be free as do the soldiers and policemen who under the orders of the dominant country killed and wounded civilians from among the dominated population.

It is regrettable that the tragedy and pain of the Shalit family is what is likely to help Israel overcome its desire for revenge and to release al-Atabeh and his friends, before they begin their fourth decade of imprisonment.