Until We Recognize the Palestinian Story, There's No Escape Hatch

Uri Misgav
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Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in Ramallah, the West Bank, on Wednesday.
Uri Misgav

The prevailing reaction in Israel to the recent escape of security prisoners is polarized: On one hand, there are people who are excited by the similarities to the blockbuster “The Shawshank Redemption,” while on the other, there are many who are obsessed with the security breach. This response is typical in its short-sightedness. The fascinating thing about the blindness of Israeli society is its blindness by choice.

With all due respect to the sleepy guard and the collapse of security arrangements, the real story is much bigger than that. It is the Palestinian story, which we have no patience for. But the more we turn our faces away from it, the more it returns to knock at our door. If we close the door, it comes back through the window, or through a slit in the wall on the Gaza border, or in the Tweet by soccer star Munes Dabbur, or in the sewage outlet under a sink in the prison’s ward number 2.

Israelis are shocked anew each time a fragment of this reality falls on their heads. They are offended to the core when a Hamas operative exploits a narrow wedge in order to shoot policemen posing as Arabs who are shooting at him, or when an Arab soccer player quotes a threatening Koran verse relating to the enemies of the Al-Aqsa mosque, or when prisoners who were sentenced to life in prison by a military court for being involved in terror attacks dig a tunnel to freedom (one of them, incidentally, has not been convicted yet and has been in prison for two years for being a member of a military organization).

The public reaction to such incidents is becoming increasingly extreme, with a demand to fire the prime minister and chief of staff in the wake of the sniper’s death, or with a call to “free the soldiers’ hands”; with curses hurled at Dabbur while he was wearing the national team’s uniform; with moaning about the rot in the Prison Service. There is no willingness to confront with open eyes the core issues that underlie these incidents: the siege on Gaza, Jerusalem, the occupation, the problem of Palestinian prisoners.

It’s truly poetic that the new prison was built on posts, on air, and that Zakaria Zubeidi escaped through a space that separated him from the ground (reality). It’s nice to fantasize about the characters played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, but we’re not in America. A more apt comparison is the 1947 Acre prison break, although the escaping terrorists in that case were the Irgun freedom fighters. One can call the prison the Islamic Jihad prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison or by its older name, Shata Prison. It always held many Arab prisoners, criminal and security ones. I know it from the time I was born, since it lies right next to my kibbutz birthplace. Jenin and the Arab villages around it are amazingly as close as the crow flies. Only at a later age did I realize, to my embarrassment, how close the 1967 Green Line border was to the Jezreel Valley, and where the occupied territories began.

For over a decade, relating to the Palestinian issue is restricted to a security-related prism. The Palestinians are the exclusive problem of the army, the Border Police, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Prison Service. For 15 years the left and its followers in the center made huge efforts to deal with the problem through diplomatic channels. This included Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres with the Oslo Accords, Ehud Barak at Camp David and Taba, Ariel Sharon with the disengagement, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni with the Annapolis process. One must admit, and the left hates admitting this since it too has a tendency to voluntarily blind itself, that Israeli concessions were met mainly with refusal, stubbornness, terror attacks and rocket fire.

Then came a host of right-wing governments headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, which did nothing but spout empty words about annexation and widen the rift with Israel’s Arab citizens through the nation-state law. Now, the state is managed by something akin to a committee, with a welcome “government of change.” But everyone knows that its heterogeneous composition will not enable advancing anything related to the Palestinian issue. Until there arises a new and bold leadership that tries to shape the future by taking into account the existence of the two peoples who live and die here, we’re the ones condemned to life imprisonment in the form of “managing the conflict,” without any escape hatch.

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