Why the Palestinian Prisoner Release Mattered

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IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS

The mother of Ateya Abu Moussa, a Palestinian who has been held prisoner by Israel for 20 years, hugs her grandson after hearing news on the possible release of her son in the Gaza Strip on July 28, 2013

The decision Sunday by the Israeli government to release 104 Palestinian prisoners seems like a straightforward victory for the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, giving him the political cover he needs to restart talks this week in Washington with representatives of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But the history of the issue on both sides shows how deeply the politics of the prisoners runs in the region and why the release made such a difference. For Israelis, the prisoners recall civilians killed in militant attacks. For Palestinians, divided as they are by geography and politics and challenged by a lack of a unifying leader, the captives play a crucial rallying role in Palestinian struggle for nationhood.

When Abbas’ political opponents in Hamas secured the release of 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for a single Israeli soldier almost two years ago, Abbas was midway between Bogotá and Caracas in full statesman mode. Greeted at Simón Bolívar International Airport by an honor guard holding swords over their heads, Abbas proceeded by motorcade up the coastal range to Caracas, and after his arrival in the penthouse suite at his hotel, I asked him what he made of the news that had, in a twinkling, overwhelmed his wildly popular speech at the U.N. announcing a bid for Palestinian statehood days earlier. “All in all, it is good,” Abbas said matter-of-factly, as a South American rainstorm pelted the plate glass. “To release 1,000 prisoners is good for us, for the families.”

But was it also good for his political opponents in Hamas? Abbas shook off the implication. “Whether they are with us or against us, they are Palestinians,” he said. “Any release of any prisoner is in the interest of every Palestinian.”

That calculation of the power of prisoners anchors the painful decision by the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday to release another group of them — this time to Abbas — as a necessary prelude to the resumption of peace negotiations. Only when the vote was recorded did Abbas’ negotiators board a flight to Washington, where they will sit down with Netanyahu’s representatives Monday night.

The release was a near thing, supported by only 12 of the 21 ministers in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. The Prime Minister called it a necessary step “to see whether we face a Palestinian side that wants, as we do, a genuine end to the conflict between us.” According to one poll, 85% of Israeli Jews opposed the release, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party called the prisoners: “A disgusting group who deserve to disappear in prison all their lives.”

On the Palestinian side, the return of any prisoner — even a routine release — is cause for public celebration. Horns honk, cars careen through the streets trailing streamers. It’s like a wedding. The celebration will be particularly enthusiastic in coming days, as the first of the 104 are expected to appear on the streets of the West Bank during the holiday that marks the close of Ramadan, the month of sacrifice and fasting currently being observed by devout Muslims. If all goes according to plan, more will be set free at regular intervals, giving Abbas an accomplishment to point to in the months ahead whether the talks make lasting progress or not.

“We take care of all the prisoners, from all the factions,” says Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority’s Deputy Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs. “Because the prisoners are all against the occupation,” he says. “They are not against Fatah or Hamas.”

Time in an Israeli prison is viewed as a rite of passage for many Palestinian males. The monitoring organization, Military Court Watch, says that 750,000 residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have spent time in detention. Israeli soldiers, sometimes operating on tips from informants or video images of stone throwing at street demonstrations (where a helmeted soldier with a video camera sometimes stands on the periphery of the action, panning the Palestinian side), often make arrests in the middle of the night.

The experience can be searing, especially for teens and preteens. Military Court Watch says that of the approximately 4,000 Palestinians currently in custody, 193 are children. Israelis recently arrested a 5-year-old boy in Hebron. The maze of military jurisprudence they encounter is described by an Australian journalist in a lengthy magazine piece and by Israeli lawyers in the film The Law in These Parts. Upon their release, the bravado kids often display in public is just that, says Salwa Duaibis, of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, who is based in Ramallah. Mothers report a different reality at home: nightmares and a return to bed-wetting.

Thereafter, time in Israeli prison becomes a credential. In the West Bank city of Hebron, the last mayor, ill at ease with the city’s reputation for militancy, tried for a time to discourage young job applicants from including prison time in their résumés — a customary practice. At al-Quds University in the town of Abu Dis, just beyond the separation barrier bisecting Jerusalem, a museum dedicated to prisoners has its own modern building, dramatic lighting and tastefully mounted exhibitions, including a collection of letters smuggled out of custody by being folded up smaller than the size of a fingernail.

“Netanyahu cannot affect how much the Palestinian people feel for their prisoners,” says Yousef Mkhemer, who heads the Committee for the Steadfast, an East Jerusalem group that fights the continuing expansion of Jewish neighborhoods across the 1967 Green Line. “Because we cannot affect other things, [we want leaders to] just bring us back our soldiers from this war.”

For Israelis, the prisoners represent a violent history. In West Jerusalem, scores of Jewish Israelis gathered outside Netanyahu’s official residence to protest the release by holding up photos of those killed by the actions of the prisoners: a teacher and three sons burned to death in a fire-bombed bus in 1988; a pair of teenagers found bound and stabbed in a ravine outside Jerusalem in 1990; two university students murdered while hiking near Bethlehem in 1984.

In East Jerusalem, Firas Tarik Issawi explains the dynamic on the Palestinian side. “These are our children,” he says. “They’re basically representing the Palestinian struggle, and as long as they’re in prison, it clearly states there’s still a struggle.” Issawi spent three years in an Israeli prison in the 1990s. His brother Samer was among the 1,000 released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but became a cause célèbre when he was rearrested in July 2012 for violating the terms of his release by venturing into the West Bank. In protest, Samer went on a hunger strike, wasting away to the point where Israeli officials feared he would die in custody — an event that both sides realized could lead to a mass uprising. He won a promise of early release.

“If any of these prisoners die, we can’t control the Palestinian street,” says Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority Deputy Minister. Adds Nasser Qouss, a Palestinian activist: “You can’t control the people today like you could in the past. In the past there were different organizations, Tanzim [the Fatah youth wing that also functioned as a militia], more people around. Now no one has any trust in any of them.”

Polls show Palestinians are pleased with neither Hamas nor Fatah; in the absence of an alternative, the two factions’ popularity rises and falls based on events. The prisoners released two years ago to Hamas in exchange for Shalit brought Hamas a surge of popularity even on the West Bank, something Abbas encountered when he returned from his foreign travels. Even in Ramallah, stronghold of his secular Fatah faction, there was displayed a sea of green flags — the Hamas color. “Why not?” Abbas told me tartly a few days later, no longer in statesman mode after a series of meetings with irate Fatah officials. “They are celebrating a very big victory — granted by our neighbor.”

He meant Israel, which had rewarded a militant group at the expense of the moderate Palestinian Authority President whose security forces keep the West Bank so quiet that, in the year that would follow, not a single Israeli would be killed there, for the first time since 1973. Abbas complained that in the wake of Shalit’s release by Hamas, Netanyahu owed him a prisoner release as well — one promised by Netanyahu’s predecessor, he acknowledged, but owed nonetheless. The prisoners on his mind were the very ones Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to release on Monday, two years later and by the narrowest margin.

When the decision finally came, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat pointed out that the same group actually had been promised freedom under the terms of an agreement Israel signed with the Palestinians at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik in 1999. “We welcome this decision 14 years later,” Erekat said dryly, and left for the airport.

27 comments
artycohn
artycohn

Ateya Abu Moussa bashed in the head of Isaac Rotenberg with an axe in 1994. Isaac, a holocaust survivor,  was married to Riva, and the two had two children, Tzipora and Pinhas.   Ateya Abu Moussa  was an Israelt citizen. Since when can the US State Department tell a sovereign nation to free a citizen of that nation.who is a  a duly convicted assassin

Chris_in_Arizona
Chris_in_Arizona

What kind of people ask for the release of murderers and terrorists as a "goodwill gesture"? How does releasing murderers and terrorists with blood on their hands promote peace? Only in the crazy world of media coverage of Israel where up and down and down is up would anybody put forward such idiotic ideas.

Wkovacs
Wkovacs

Maybe mr Vick should take a look at mr erakat's fb page, where he prominently displays a map of Israel with the word Palestine draped across it's entirety.

And when terrorists murder Israelis, they are militants?

Bacchus
Bacchus like.author.displayName 1 Like

It sounds like, in your opinion, the reason the release mattered is because, as you end your article by saying, the Israeli's 'finally' decided to give peace a chance. This notion is so far from the truth, that it is a waste to comment on it. If the facts of this conflict are not known to readers, writers, and bystanders, then what we have is a true distortion of reality. 

What you forgot to mention is that Israel has agreed to stop development of settlements AND release over one thousand prisoners - in exchange for what? In exchange for the commencement of peace talks with Palestinians. What did the Palestinians agree to give?

The reason that the release of these prisoners 'mattered', as you say, is simply because peace talks are bound to commence. That's a big deal. Why will they commence? Because Israel has yet again taken a huge step in moving forward with peace talks while the rest of the world continues to sweep that fact under the rug in a perverse and distorted image that Israel shouldn't be holding these people prisoner in the first place, an image that you continue to feed to your readers. This isn't a new gesture offered by the Israelis in their efforts to achieve peace over the decades. Nationhood could have been achieved time and again by the Palestinians. A real partner for peace should display a real commitment towards peace. This current prisoner release displays that commitment in Israel. Israel is saying 'please, here are yet more individuals who have murdered innocent Israelis over the years, have them back. Let them free. Give them the chance to commit acts of terror again if so it may be. This is how much we want peace."

Perhaps more importantly, I would like to point out, yet again, a major flaw in your fact checking and reporting. Israel DOES NOT and HAS NOT arrested children under the legal age of 12 (which is a common age around the globe). In this article you state that Israel has recently arrested a 5 year old in Hebron (you forgot to mention that this boy was caught throwing stones). This is a lie. The boy was not and could not have been arrested according to Israeli law. He was scared and crying, of course, but not a single soldier mistreated him and they only brought him home in their military jeep. Sure, maybe a lecture was given, some words exchanged - the boy was throwing rocks and could have injured someone. The fact that you wrote that Israel ARRESTED a 5 year old child is a flat out lie. 

Unprofessional, biased, journalism. Opinions should be reserved for memoirs, op-eds and comment boards.


youkaan
youkaan

@TIME @TIMEWorld The US cannot play the role of mediator btween the Palestinians and Israel, bc they r on the Israeli side in the conflict.

youkaan
youkaan

@TIME @TIMEWorld Israel never, ever gave to the Palestinians any concession of value; just cosmetics. The forecast for this one is the same.

youkaan
youkaan

@TIME @TIMEWorld Because Israel can incarcerate at will any Palestinian any time,just like they did 2 Yasser Arafat,until they poisoned him.

youkaan
youkaan

@TIME @TIMEWorld The release of the prisoners is cause for celebration for the families/friends, bt it's nothing for the overall Pal cause.

FeebWillis
FeebWillis like.author.displayName 1 Like

I visited Israel for the first time in 1986 and drove all over the place and at the end of 3 weeks looked at a  map for first time and said to myself "they are going to try to make two states out of this?"  And that was when there were 108 thousand Jews living in the West Bank and not 500,000 as there are today.  The two state solution is a chimera and the truth is, no matter who likes it or not, Israel is headed inexorably towards a bi-national state, de jure or de facto.

Dave4321
Dave4321

Couldn't spare a word for the hundreds of innocent civilians slaughtered by these cold blooded killed and the destroyed families they left behind, Karl?

jkarp60
jkarp60

Karl Vick is a Hack.....not objective at all!!!!

mxm123
mxm123

@Dave4321 - And for the thousands of Palestinians slaugthered by Israelis.

jkarp60
jkarp60

Well....palestinians did not kill any Olympic Athletes....what about Klinghoffer, the New Yorker in a wheelchair toossed off the Aquila Lauro ship in the Mediterranean.....

They looked for a Jew and tossed him overboard in his wheelchair?

Or TWA hijacked By Palestinians to Beirut and killed the Navy Seal and tossed him down to the tarmac????

Move to Gaza and tell them your jewish!!!!

kreal
kreal

@TIMEWorld it doesn't matter it's a political ploy for Israel to gain support through positive PR at the end of the day problems un solved

jkarp60
jkarp60

Try to help the people you can not the ones who will kill you too when the Jews are gone brother!

humdehum801
humdehum801

@TIMEWorld @TIME No no no no no. There are no "two sides". There's only the Pro-Palestinian side (Which is the pro-human rights side).

jkarp60
jkarp60

YOU ARE JOKING RIGHT ????

jkarp60
jkarp60

g-d bless...peace to all!