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It's Time to Release Palestinian Prisoners

Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
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Prisoners in Ayalon prison, May 2018.
Prisoners in Ayalon prison, May 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

In many areas Israelis think outside the box, but in the essential things they are trapped deep inside it. A week ago, many wielded their rhetorical swords against the prime minister and the president for violating the isolation orders. Anyone landing here only a moment ago could have thought that these two distinguished people were caught passing sensitive security information to Iran.

But when the two of them crush the civil structure of the country, and deny the right of Arabs to be partners in the government – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu through racist incitement, and President Reuven Rivlin by calling for the formation of a national unity government consisting of one nation – nobody protests. Business as usual.

Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent billions into isolation – and which in Israel and the Palestinian Authority was even imposed early on – the situation is forcing both sides to think differently. The Israeli army, instead of becoming even stronger, is assuming civilian tasks, like supporting citizens in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and the Galilee village of Deir al-Asad. And in the besieged PA, the security services have become the ones offering humanitarian assistance.

File photo: Prisoners at Neve Tirza in 2011.Credit: Karin Lapidot

Slowly but surely we are beginning to realize that the world has changed. On one hand, humanity is facing a frightening pandemic, and there is fear that a wave of illness may flood us in the fall – and on the other, there is demand for fundamental change that will bring about a different social order, one whose main component is a reinforcement of the public health system. But above all there is the need to ensure, first and foremost, the health and welfare of our next-door neighbor. Because if our very distant neighbor (China, in our case) has infected the entire world, how much more must we be concerned about the health of the two neighbors in our region, who live next door to each other.

It was actually the Hamas leadership that took the lead here. Its members understood the new situation, broke the accepted frameworks and proposed a prisoner exchange. They understood that in changing times there is a need for different tools.

As we know, the strategy at the basis of the Oslo Accords was to advance step by step, in order to foster trust among the two sides, with each step instilling greater confidence and spurring them to go on to the next step. But the architects of this strategy failed to take into account that the longer the process takes, the more its enemies multiply, as do the opportunities to sabotage it. In the five years allotted to the implementation of the accord, each new day gave its opponents an opportunity to arouse more difficulties, until the inevitable explosion.

This strategy of creeping progress is bankrupt. The suffering only increased, and the disappointments multiplied. Instead of ripping the Band-Aid off the wound quickly, the delay made the pain worse and last longer.

Today, if we want to think outside the box, the most effective step is a release of all the Palestinian prisoners. Without stages and without bargaining. The Arabs say: “If you want to feed someone, feed him until he is sated.” There is no partial peace, just as there is no partial pregnancy. The road to reconciliation requires people of vision, not petty quibblers who measure every movement toward peace in fractions of millimeters, until the journey turns into one of torture rather than peace. The time has come to understand that to fly planes you need pilots, not cyclists.

Palestinians at a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails outside the UN High Commissioner's offices in Rafah Gaza, March 16, 2020. Credit: AFP

After the release of the Palestinian prisoners there will be a commission of inquiry: What was the purpose of this entire terrifying system, with its thousands of officials, wardens and handcuffs? What’s more, during the coronavirus period, who can guarantee that the pandemic won’t erupt between one stalling-for-time tactic and the next?

I know that there will be cries of woe, that they will claim that the evil is only on the Palestinian side. The notebooks will be pulled out to remind us of every stone and bomb that was thrown, as though the soldiers who confronted the Palestinians were holding only wreaths of flowers. Israelis must understand that the Palestinians also think that all the evil is only on one side, the Israeli side. If each side comes with the other side’s arsenal of evil, Armageddon will continue forever.

Imagine thousands of Palestinian prisoners returning to their homes. Wouldn’t that bring hope that something good will come of the coronavirus? And this time it would be good for both sides. The path to it lies outside the box.

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