Prisoners or Criminals?

The prevailing axiom is that the Palestinians are always 'terrorists' even when they act against soldiers and not civilians.

The rallies in support of the abducted soldiers and their families, as a means of applying pressure on politicians, are hinting at a healthy development: The Israeli public is casting doubt on the motives and ability of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government with respect to the three captives. It used to be that the belief in politicians' concern for prisoners of war was tantamount to a sacred cow. No longer.

But the doubt that has been cast is not sufficient, just as rallies do not suffice. Even if the latest media reports that are again talking about progress in the negotiations to release Gilad Shalit are correct, the predominant discourse is that of the defense establishment and its overseers in the government. This is the very same defense establishment that failed so resoundingly in the mission to release the soldiers, and that led to two blood-soaked military attacks using the usual excuse of fighting terror: the one against the Gaza Strip and its civilians and the other against Lebanon and its civilians. The targeted killing of armed Palestinians and Hezbollah pales in comparison to the civilian victims, the dead and the wounded in Gaza and Lebanon, and the damage to the civilian infrastructure. These attacks only decreased the chance for release and added months of suffering to the abducted men and their families.

The failing political and security mechanisms are the ones that for years have formulated the axioms in Israel concerning the Palestinian prisoners. The first axiom is that every Palestinian security prisoner is a criminal. Even during the Oslo period, Israel did not free itself from this definition and did not recognize the Palestinians as prisoners of war to be released as an integral part of a peace process. Israel did release many thousands, but it did this as a gesture from the ruling side. It also demonstrated a racist approach when it released people who had been convicted of murdering Palestinian collaborators, but not those who had been convicted of murdering or injuring Jews (among them soldiers).

Thus, to this day, nearly 400 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israel who were convicted of crimes (which is how the occupier's law book defines it) that were committed before the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in May 1994. Those responsible for these prisoners, from Yasser Arafat through Yasser Abed Rabbo to Mohammed Dahlan, spent many hours in negotiations and at cocktail parties with Israeli representatives. But those under their command are supposed to serve out their prison terms (of several decades) to the end or remain in life imprisonment, which for Palestinian prisoners is also until their death, in shocking contrast to Jewish prisoners, especially Jewish settlers in the occupied territories convicted of murdering "out of nationalist motives" who are quickly released after their punishment is reduced.

Among the Palestinian prisoners there are prisoners who have come down with serious illnesses, and the vengeful Israeli system is refusing to release them. Family members of most of the prisoners have not been allowed to visit them for long periods. All of them, and this too is an axiom, are discriminated against in their conditions of imprisonment, as compared with the Jewish prisoners. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, most Israelis have been denying the fact that we are the citizens of an occupying state. They define the current intifada as a war that has been declared against us by the fictive Palestinian state. And even though this is defined as a war, the prevailing axiom is that the Palestinians are always "terrorists," even when they act against soldiers and not civilians. The companion axiom to this is that only on our side are there "soldiers," even when they are sent to act against an occupied civilian population.

The common denominator of these axioms is the distinction between blood and blood and person and person. The Jew is always worth more, much much more, when he is a victim, when he is a soldier, when he is a POW. This distinction plays a significant role in Palestinian support for the tactic of abduction. If political logic, diplomatic negotiations and a basic premise of equality have not led to the release of Palestinian prisoners, the abduction of Israelis will do this. The fact is that only when soldiers are abducted is the existence of the Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners remembered. But the rallies in support of the abductees are not questioning these axioms, and therefore the rallies are still ceremonies aimed at pleasing those who hold them.