The Palestinian Prisoners' Dilemma

Israeli Jews can't accept how Palestinians lionize the freed terrorists who committed deliberate murder. But there's a nonviolent Palestinian narrative, too.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Don Futterman
Don Futterman

Palestinian prisoner releases are traumatic and damaging for Jewish Israelis – but a necessity for Palestinians. They harm the Israeli Jewish psyche, evoking helplessness, rage at our government leaders and judiciary, and an overflow of hate directed at the Palestinians. They undermine support for peace negotiations and provide an excuse for our government to expand settlements at a record pace.

The anguish is raw. Israeli newspapers have published an annotated list describing the murders that each of these prisoners committed. Children were murdered in front of their parents, parents in front of their children, and young hikers were left dead to rot in the mountains. All were killed because they were Jews, most while doing everyday activities. The killings committed by prisoners expected to be released in the fourth and final round in March include particularly gruesome attacks, like the slaughter of three soldiers with pitchforks and axes.

We identify with the victims because they could have been any one of us. To review the details of their deaths makes you crazy, makes you want to catch the prisoners and kill them yourself.

Bereaved family members, as if they hadn’t already suffered enough, find themselves pitted against the courts, which routinely reject the claims of private citizens to reverse a government policy decision, and against the settlement lobby.
Settlers – presented with the absurd calculus of getting hundreds of new homes built in the territories or homicidal terrorists remaining in their cells, but not both – chose settlements, through their Knesset representatives.

At the same time, we are presented with murderers as the only face of the Palestinian people. It’s as if no Palestinians were negotiating with us, as if West Bank leaders had not renounced violence in our conflict, as if they had not maintained joint security arrangements with our military despite settlement expansion.

Palestinian citizens of Israel – Arab Israelis – may also be on the list for the final release, raising the emotional temperature even higher. It is not by chance that bills to annex part of the West Bank have been passed or proposed near these releases because the Jewish public is feeling outraged and betrayed.

On the Palestinian side it is very different. The prisoner releases have created the tiny window of opportunity that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to force open. They provide the only tangible achievement President Mahmoud Abbas can show his people.

According to Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, prior to mention of prisoner releases, two-thirds of Palestinians surveyed opposed an unconditional resumption of negotiations with Israel. Once prisoner releases were added as a condition for renewing talks, support for negotiations jumped to 50 percent. By the time the first two releases had been implemented, even more Palestinians favored continuing the negotiations.

Almost every Palestinian family has had at least one member spend time in an Israeli jail, and all Palestinians suffer directly from our occupation. It should not surprise us that they identify with prisoners, not with their jailers or victims. The Palestinian prisoner affairs minister, Issa Karaka, boasted that “the Israeli concept of ‘life in prison’ has collapsed” since prisoners were no longer “locked up behind bars for the rest of their lives.” He gloated that the Palestinians had scored a point in their unequal battle against us. For Palestinian leaders, prisoner releases are practically their only currency of success, since we have allowed them few others.

I don’t want to sugarcoat how large the gap is in our perspectives. Prisoners are treated as freedom fighters by Palestinians, regardless of the crime they committed. We can never accept the excuse that their crimes were “politically motivated,” as if terrorists don’t have a choice when they act. To Israeli Jews, the notion of lionizing people who deliberately murdered civilians, women, children and teenagers is perverse, an expression of a culture in despair. Israeli Jews will never understand this, no matter how we stretch the limits of our empathy.

But it is a mistake to assume that because killers are celebrated, most Palestinians approve of every act of violence committed against us or dream of murdering Jews.

The majority of West Bank Palestinians polled today, according to Dr. Shikaki, favor a peaceful resolution to the conflict. When surveyed about which democracy they admire, Palestinians rank Israel first, above the United States, and place the Palestinian Authority last. Such admiration bespeaks the mixed and complicated feelings toward Israel that would naturally result from years of occupation and close proximity, not monolithic hatred. Few Israeli Jews hear these voices, perhaps because peaceful Palestinians threaten our government’s narrative more than violent ones.

As we approach the fourth and final prisoner release, we should direct our fury at our prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu entered into this devil’s bargain to avoid any kind of settlement freeze, which would have kept the prisoners in their cells. But he is happy to pump up the anger to have an excuse at every release for a settlement splurge, and further poison hopes for peace. He might have instead come up with incentives for the Palestinians that would promote reconciliation but require hope and a vision of coexistence.

Don Futterman is program director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation working to strengthen civil society and promote peace in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s "The Promised Podcast."

Palestinian women hold pictures of relatives as they participate in a demonstration calling for release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.Credit: AP



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