A Society Is Judged by the Way It Treats Its Prisoners

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday at the Presidential Conference that the Palestinian prisoners' 'exceptional conditions' will be made more strict. The 'party' is over, he said. On the fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit's abduction, Netanyahu has thrown another populist bone at the protesters and proved that he's doing something to free the kidnapped soldier.

To the cheers of the attendees at the perverse market that was the Israeli Presidential Conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that the Palestinian prisoners' "exceptional conditions" will be made more strict. The "party" is over, he said. There will no longer be "masters and doctors of terror." On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the abduction of Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu has thrown another populist bone at the protesters and proved that he's doing something to free the kidnapped soldier.

The Shalit family responded with surprising satisfaction. The media outlets vied with each other in showing Palestinian prisoners playing snooker in prison, having refreshments and reading a newspaper's health supplement. And they took part in the nefarious and zealous call to make the prisoners' conditions worse. No one spoke about prisoners' legal rights and our moral image; no one properly described the conditions of their incarceration. No one even asked whether there was any point to Netanyahu's move. The people are thirsty for vengeance, and that's that. Netanyahu and the media will quench their thirst.

Shalit has been imprisoned under inhuman, illegal and atrocious conditions. But making prison conditions worse, in fact, unbearable, for Palestinian prisoners will not bring Shalit one iota closer to release or to better conditions. It will only bring Israel's image closer to Hamas'.

The hot-headed people speaking from their studios or newspaper columns, who are so shocked at the sight of a Palestinian prisoner embracing his baby and so want to see him suffer, are motivated by a lack of knowledge, a lack of humanity and just plain populism. One might perhaps understand the urge of these commentators, in light of Shalit's fate, but Hamas' cruelty must not become contagious. Shalit's release, we must repeat over and over, will only happen through a deal, whose conditions have already been set.

About 5,400 Palestinian prisoners are now in Israeli prison, of which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have had a bitter taste over the years. It's not a matter of "thousands of murderers," as people like to portray it. Only some have been convicted of murder; some of their acts were particularly horrific. Two hundred and twenty have been imprisoned without trial, and there are also 180 incarcerated minors, among whom are a few dozen children under 16.

Some of the Palestinians are political prisoners in every sense of the word; they were convicted of "membership" and other political offenses. Most were convicted by the military court system, whose connection to justice is like a military band's to music. Among them are victims of frame-ups by collaborators - they have been jailed without committing a crime.

These are not "thousands of murderers." In any case, they all have rights according to Israeli and international law, rights they do not always receive. Some, especially those from the Gaza Strip, have not received family visits for years. And of course, there are no prison furloughs for Palestinians. Israeli Arab lifers do not even get their sentences reduced, the way any Jewish murderer does, which is scandalous in itself.

Yes, some of the prisoners do get to study. Not long ago I met a bereaved father, Said Ayish, from Silwan. That terrorist has become a peace-loving translator of Hebrew literature, thanks to his studies in prison.

They are all incarcerated under harsh conditions - much less severe than those of Shalit, and that's a good thing. A recent report by the human rights groups B'Tselem and Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual revealed, for example, the shocking conditions at the Shin Bet security service detention facility in Petah Tikva. The cell in which prominent Israelis have volunteered to spend one hour under "Project Gilad" - launched this week to highlight Shalit's incarceration - can remind us of those conditions quite well. The detainees in the Shin Bet facility are held in solitary confinement in cells the width of a mattress, in shocking sanitary conditions, under constant light and deprived of sleep. Thousands of Palestinians bear the physical and emotional scars of the torture they have undergone in interrogation rooms.

To many Israelis, that is not enough. They want more suffering and vengeance. The sight of the makloubeh the Palestinian prisoners cooked for themselves in their narrow cells infuriates them more than our appearance in the mirror. A society is judged by the way it treats its prisoners. And yet, if I believed that this collective punishment could bring relief to Gilad, maybe I would have joined them.