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Palestinians worry about prisoner release

As negotiations with Israel re-start, some Palestinians fear prisoners will be exchanged for final status concessions.

Last Modified: 10 Aug 2013 12:54
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Israel often pledges to release Palestinian prisoners to push Palestinian negotiators to the dialogue table [EPA]

While Israel parades the upcoming release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a "goodwill gesture" in light of upcoming negotiations in Washington, many Palestinians have voiced concern over what they may be forced to give up in the talks.

Earlier this week, Israeli officials stated the prisoners, all of which have been in Israeli prisons for over 20 years, will be released in four phases, with the first 26 expected to be released on Tuesday.

They went on to say the rest will be released over the next eight months, depending on the progress of the negotiations, which have started up again after a three-year hiatus.

Yet since the announcement of the prisoner release in July, seen as a sweetener to encourage the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Israel has not only approved funding for dozens illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, but has also approved construction plans for over 800 houses in the settlements, causing alarm bells to ring.

Palestinians across the political spectrum are warning the Palestinian Authority, which is leading the negotiations, not to compromise on other final status issues such as the illegal settlements, the 1967 borders, and security to satisfy short-term goals.

'Freedom fighters'

Shawan Jabarin, executive director of Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation based in Ramallah, described the upcoming release as a political bargaining chip for the Israelis to wield over the Palestinians.

"We are eager to see the prisoners free because they fought for the freedom of Palestine and the right of self-determination, but I think their freedom is being compromised for other political issues," he told Al Jazeera.

They [Israelis] are using the issue of political prisoners as a pressure card, which we have seen in past negotiations, and they are using it again because they know it is a sensitive issue for the Palestinian Authority.

Sahar Francis, human rights campaigner

"If you were to ask the prisoners if they want to be released on the condition of final status issues for the negotiations, they will refuse, because this is not what they spent their lives fighting for."

For Jabarin, the situation today has reached the point where what the Palestinian leadership considers to be achievements are what Israelis consider to be small concessions offered as part of a broader policy of territorial control.

"With the prisoners, this not a big deal for the Israelis, it is the easiest thing," he said. "But for the Palestinian leadership, this is the only thing they can get, because they gave up everything else in the past."

There have been numerous pledges made by Israel over the last two decades to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, either as a "good will gesture", or as part of a prisoner exchange.

Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said recent prisoneer release was a difficult choice for his government. "There are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of them," Netanyahu said recently. 

There was plenty of opposition to the decision to release the Palestinian prisoners, even from within Netanyahu's own Likud party. Danny Danon, deputy defense minister opposed the release, calling it "crazy", and that it would be the release of "dozens of terrorists with the blood of hundreds of Israelis on their hands." 

Releases are often used to nudge the Palestinian Authority, who governs the occupied West Bank, to the negotiating table.

The last "good will gesture" was in 2008, when Israel released 224 Palestinians in order to ease relations with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.

Two years ago, Israel agreed with Hamas to release 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for one Israeli soldier, who was being held captive in Gaza.

Yet on this occasion, the release of the 104 prisoners is actually the completion of a pledge Israel made back in 1999 during the Sharm el Sheikh talks, in which the same 104 were expected to be released as part of a prisoner release agreement.

Yousef Mounayyer, executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Centre, pointed to the upcoming release as an example of how Israel is never forced to honour its commitments.

"As these prisoners were meant to have been released 14 years ago, what we're seeing is the Israelis making commitments which they are never obligated to keep," he told Al Jazeera. "The Israelis can create bargaining chips, never give up bargaining chips, and never act on them, such as the prisoners."

Mounayyer emphasised the release of the prisoners as a great relief, as "every Palestinian and Palestinian family has experienced, in one way or another, the inside of an Israeli prison, so this is an issue which touches everybody."

"However, the question is what was involved in this transaction?" asked Mounayyer.

'Holding negotiations hostage'

Sahar Francis, director of Jerusalem-based Addameer, a human rights organisation focused on Palestinian prisoners, voiced concern over the Israeli insistence of releasing the prisoners in phases.

"What they are essentially doing is holding the negotiations hostage," she told Al Jazeera.

"They are using the issue of political prisoners as a pressure card, which we have seen in past negotiations, and they are using it again because they know it is a sensitive issue for the Palestinian Authority,"  she said. "We're seeing a repeat of the same mistakes made in Oslo some 20 years ago."

History has shown that with previous prisoner releases and prisoner swaps, Israel has purposefully rearrested a number of the prisoners, and increased their arrest tally in the immediate aftermath of any mass-release.

"This means the number of Palestinians within Israeli jails doesn't tend to decrease really," said Francis.

Amjad Salfiti, a lawyer and head of the UK chapter of the Arab Organisation for Human rights, is also wary of the Israeli gesture, saying such a release should have been overseen and underwritten by independent parties such as the United Nations or the International Red Cross, to guarantee it is fulfilled.

"This is something we would expect the Palestinian negotiators to insist upon," he told Al Jazeera, adding that without a written guarantee, there is nothing that compels the Israelis to release them all, and to not re-arrest them once they are released.

"Currently it just seems to be something purely for public consumption."

By releasing them in phases, Israel is sending the signal that it continues to maintain the upper hand.

"It is humiliating and stripping such a gesture of its goodness. Essentially they are saying 'we will release them in batches and see how well you behave,'" he said. "If it is not 'appreciated', there's nothing stopping the Israelis from holding the rest of the prisoners back."

Political implications

Palestinian women take part in a rally marking Palestinian Prisoners Day in Gaza City in April [AFP]

Meanwhile, Fatah has denied the prisoner release is in any way related to the process or progress of the negotiations.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah's Central Committee who is close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Al Jazeera that "the Israelis can say what they want about it being related to the negotiations, but we're looking at it differently."

"The way we see things is that the prisoner release is not related to the progress of the negotiating table," he said, adding that their release "is related to the Sharm el Sheikh agreement in 1999".

"Israel is obliged to [release them], and now they are doing it at the start of the talks," he said.

The Americans, he says, are the guarantors on this release, "but we know the game very well, and we know the Israelis very well".

Hamas has voiced concern over what may be at stake following the release of the prisoners vis-a-vi the negotiations, saying that such a gesture is more of a way to draw-in the Palestinian Authority.

"The Americans and Israelis try to attract the Palestinian Authority in order to get their own benefits, so they offer them the removal of checkpoints, economic developments, prisoner releases, and so on," Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, told Al Jazeera.

"We are certainly not against the release of prisoners, but we would like to see it away from political conditions and away from the Israeli side gaining more benefits."

Comparing the Hamas prisoner exchange two years ago with today's prisoner release, he felt they were in a better negotiating position than the Palestinian Authority is in now.

"When we had [Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit] in our hands, we could pressure Israel on prisoners, and with our missiles, we could pressure them for a ceasefire," he said. "Sometimes, the Israelis deal with Abbas as a weak man."

And until the Palestinians can work together in unison and present themselves as a coalition made up of different factions, Israel will continue to maintain the upper hand in negotiations.

"As Palestinians we need to go back and sit together in order to create a new strategy," he said. "Right now there are two directions, political and resistance, and they are moving in contradictory directions."

"Abbas is moving along without any support from the Palestinian factions."

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Al Jazeera
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