Why the Palestinian Prisoner Release Mattered

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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.