Palestinian society, like every society waging a struggle for national liberation, feels a special responsibility toward those of its sons and daughters who have sacrificed their lives or their freedom for the collective. Palestinians consider the people we call "terrorists" or "murderers" as "freedom fighters" and "national heroes." In many cases, as in South Africa and Northern Ireland, it was prisoner leaders who effected reconciliation.
Many of the Palestinians with whom Israel conducts peace talks and security ties, and who are frequently interviewed in Hebrew by the Israeli media, spent the best years of their lives in Israeli prisons. Public opinion polls in the territories show that the fate of some 5,000 prisoners and administrative detainees is of more concern to the Palestinian public than all the issues relating to a final-status arrangement.
Despite this, the situation of these jailed Palestinians has been pushed to the margins of Israel's security and foreign-policy agenda. Israeli decision makers deal with this issue only when they are negotiating for the release of Israeli captives, or when, as happened recently, they fear the death of hunger-striking prisoners might spark riots in the territories and attract international attention to the human rights situation there.
The recent agreement between the Israel Prison Service and the prisoners' representatives, with praiseworthy mediation by Egypt, corrected a few of the distortions in Israel's solitary confinement and family visits policy for prisoners from the Gaza Strip. Israel also promised to review the files of more than 300 administrative detainees, some of whom have been jailed for many months without even being told what their crime is.
In return the prisoners promised to refrain from all terror-related activity in prison. This can be seen as another sign of the Palestinians' recognition of the advantages of nonviolent protest over armed struggle.
The government must reconsider its treatment of political prisoners in general and administrative detainees in particular. The recently enacted law mandating appropriate conditions for all prisoners, combining proposals by MK Dov Khenin (Hadash ) and by the Public Security Ministry - is a step in the right direction.