Palestinians Suspect Their Leaders Don't Care About the Prisoners

A trail of suspicion accompanies every announcement of negotiations concerning the release of prisoners. It is internal Palestinian suspicion, which has deepened since it turned out that the prisoners and their release were left out of the discussions on the 1993 declaration of principles that was the basis for the Oslo Accord. The mistrust only became more bitter during the negotiations for an interim agreement, when the release of every few hundred prisoners was preceded by exhausting negotiations, and when it became clear that Israel was not willing to release all the Palestinian prisoners arrested before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

Doubts regarding their future were particularly heavy among the more veteran prisoners and their families. They found it hard to believe that they had been left out not due to apathy toward their cause and therefore a lack of effort, but due to an asymmetrical balance of power in which the Palestinian side is too weak to effect changes in the Israeli position, too weak to prevent the inclusion of Palestinians caught in Israel without permits and criminal prisoners in the Israeli "gestures" and too weak to demand the release of Israeli Palestinians who joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization before Oslo and operated in its framework.

This suspicion sheds light on the sociopolitical tensions with which PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the Fatah leadership must contend if they want any power and if they want to succeed in the current negotiations.

The first suspicion is that the Palestinian leadership, which is still controlled by the "returnees" from abroad, does not really care about the prisoners. In a political organization with a patriarchal-clan character like Fatah, the air is always suffused with the comparison between the harsh fate of "our children, the `inside' children rotting in prison," and the fate of the children of the "outside" leadership, who studied at distinguished universities and are now managing government offices or private companies.

Suspicion is also directed toward "the elite" in and of itself. The Israeli prison experience is a basic experience of the masses. Some estimates put the number of Palestinian security prisoners who have been through Israeli prisons since 1967 at half a million. This is mainly an experience of the "lower" classes: of the refugee camps, the villages, the weaker neighborhoods.

In the Oslo years, the negotiations over the peace agreement were connected by an umbilical cord to Israeli promises for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian economy and options for economic deals. The reason and language of "business management" pushed aside the reason and language of the struggle and the personal sacrifice for the sake of the collective and the collective obligation to the individual.

Suspiciousness about the perceived apathy of the representatives of the elite also applied to those who had been prisoners and had become negotiators, like Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, with no connection to the extent of their efforts to release the prisoners.

Support from inside

In recent days Israeli spokesmen have mentioned the need to release Fatah members who supported Abu Mazen from inside the prisons (meaning they did not support the opposition). Such talk also contributes to the atmosphere of mistrust and the assumption that the Palestinians themselves are the ones who asked and are asking the Israeli representatives not to release opposition members (mainly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also from the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine - the PFLP and the DFLP).

For Abu Mazen to succeed in persuading Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a cease-fire, he cannot afford the suspicion that he prefers to leave members of the Islamic opposition in Israeli prisons.

This fourth suspicion contradicts the ethos of the Al-Aqsa Intifada: it concerns the fate of the prisoners from East Jerusalem, several dozen of whom are behind bars since the period of the first intifada. As Israeli citizens, Israel refused to release most of them - particularly those who are not Fatah members. The Palestinian leadership, which stresses that peace is impossible without (East) Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, cannot be suspected of forgetting the prisoners from East Jerusalem. Even so, the East Jerusalem families are afraid of just that: that their prisoners will be forgotten, that the declarations are only a cover for the acceptance of this verdict - regarding the prisoners from East Jerusalem, just as the East Jerusalem neighborhoods that are now separated from the West Bank by the separation fence and transit permits.

The prisoners jailed before the Oslo Accord and thousands of their family members waver between hope and the fear of hoping and being disappointed again. In the past 10 years, these prisoners have waved good-bye to fellow prisoners five or six times, as the latter have been released early and the former have been left behind. Sometimes those released were convicted of very similar offenses, but were in different organizations or geographic locations - which determine who will be released and who will remain incarcerated.

The mother of one of the veteran prisoners (from East Jerusalem, who does not have "blood on his hands") was on the verge of tears last weekend and said that if her son is not released this time, "we will cause a commotion for Abu Mazen." This does not indicate any ability to cause a commotion, but it does indicate the mood.