Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Twenty-six Palestinian prisoners, some held in Israeli jails for more than two decades, were released to their families in a “gesture of good faith” by Israel’s government.
But critics say Tuesday’s move should have been made decades ago under the Oslo Accords, and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is milking the release for its own political gain.
It was the second batch of detainees freed since the re-start of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in July, part of the “104 pre-Oslo prisoners” to be let go by Israel contingent on the progress of peace talks.
The release was aimed at facilitating peace negotiations, which US Secretary of State John Kerry recently described as the last chance to save the two-state solution.
Yet the discharge is one of few positive developments, as Palestinians have become increasingly disillusioned with negotiations that have done nothing to halt Israeli settlement expansion, curb violence, or guarantee the release of the more than 5,000 prisoners who remain in Israeli jails.
The feeling cannot be described … hope, thankfulness, victory. But also sadness for all those still in prison.
Since Kerry announced the return to negotiations on July 19, there have been at least 1,100 Palestinians detained by the Israeli army. On October 18, dozens were arrested in Hebron and Nablus, including two from the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Sabih Abed Hammed Borhan spoke about the emotions he felt upon hearing he would be freed as one of 26 prisoners released in August.
“The feeling cannot be described … hope, thankfulness, victory. But also sadness for all those still in prison,” he said in an interview that month.
Borhan was serving five life sentences on murder charges allegedly committed during the First Intifada, but was released soon after the Oslo deal. He began working for the Palestinian Authority, traveling throughout the West Bank and to Jordan three times in an official capacity.
Then, during the Second Intifada, he was re-arrested for being a “wanted man”.
Borhan said he was held for interrogation for 115 days, accused of kidnapping Israeli soldiers – the evidence of which he never saw – and finally sentenced to six life terms.
“They accused me of kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in 1995. But they know that had I done that, I couldn’t have been working in the PA and traveling freely through their checkpoints every day for years,” Borhan said.
He described being tied up for three days, only freed to eat and go to the toilet. “The conditions in prison were very difficult. I was not allowed to see my family, my wife, my sons for almost three years,” said Borhan.
A Palestinian official praised the move, but said it was far too late.
“We welcome the release of our political prisoners, all of whom should have been released during the Oslo agreement more than 20 years ago,” Ziad abu Ein, deputy minister of prisoner affairs told, Al Jazeera. “This can only help the peace talks and the realisation of an agreement based on the two-state solution.”
The Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993, stipulated the release of all Palestinian detainees held by Israel. However, that has not come to fruition.
“[The] 104 pre-Oslo prisoners were slated to be released as a precondition in previous negotiations that Israel reneged on,” said prisoner support and human rights organisation Addameer.
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Sahar Francis, director of Addameer, told Al Jazeera: “Prisoner releases are of central importance toward a lasting peace. Yet Israel continued to treat the issues as a public relations opportunity and a means to achieve political gains.”
The Palestinian Authority has also been criticised for capitalising politically by turning each release into an achievement by President Mahmud Abbas, the PA, and the negotiations themselves.
Rival Hamas, as well as other political parties in the West Bank, have come out strongly against the US-brokered peace talks.
“Instead of settling for the promise of prisoners releases that have been reneged on for over 20 years, the PA must demand a change in Israeli policy regarding Palestinian prisoners – the immediate halt to arbitrary detention policies, arrests of young children and the egregious treatment of the Palestinian prisoners, including torture, medical negligence and inhumane living conditions,” Addameer said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
Ahmed – a former prisoner who asked that his surname not be published for his own safety – attended the nighttime reception in Ramallah after the first prisoner release in August.
“It seemed more like a political rally for Fatah than a celebration of the men’s freedom. This [the prisoner release] is nothing compared to the thousands that remain inside,” he said.
More than 2,000 Israelis upset at the release gathered outside the Ofer Prison on Monday. For them granting freedom to “terrorists” was not acceptable. To some Israel’s “good will gesture” is a painful concession that will do little to facilitate peace.
Yossi Zur Asaf, a member of Almagor Terror Victims Association, lost his son during the Second Intifada.
“We fight against the release of terrorists for a long time,” he told Al Jazeera. “We truly believe that some who killed people – especially if they are women, children, civilians – they should not be released for any reason.
“We are here to identify with the families of the victims, and to say to the government: ‘Don’t make this mistake again.'”
Naomi, an Israeli from Hebrew University in Jerusalem who asked to be identified with one name, said, “I support peace and Palestinian rights. But these are murderers that killed civilians. And we all know nothing will come of these talks, so what’s the point?”
I hope for peace and justice but I have no hope in the talks. Oslo was a disaster and these talks are no different. I know this release has nothing to do with peace, but every prisoner released is a victory.
Polls indicate this sentiment about the futility of the peace talks is shared by both Israelis and Palestinians.
The University of Tel Aviv’s Peace Index and the Palestinian Public Opinion Poll show a deep scepticism shared by both sides, with 81 percent of Israelis and 70 percent of Palestinians saying negotiations will not succeed in reaching a peace agreement.
However, the release of any prisoner is considered a victory among Palestinians. As Israelis protest in anger over their freedom, in the occupied territories the men returned home Tuesday as icons in the struggle for independence.
A Palestinian fighter during the Second Intifada spoke to Al Jazeera about the importance of these men to Palestinian society.
“They are heroes here, not for killing, but for resisting the occupation,” he said, requesting anonymity to ensure his safety. “We [Palestinians] do not love violence … but violence has been forced upon us, every day since 1967. This occupation is violence, and there is a saying about what violence breeds.”
Ibrahim Amari is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who works in Ramallah and attends Birzeit University.
“I hope for peace and justice but I have no hope in the talks. Oslo was a disaster and these talks are no different. I know this release has nothing to do with peace, but every prisoner released is a victory.”
‘Far too long’
“Historically speaking, this policy of prisoners’ releases has proven that it is not truly a ‘goodwill gesture’ to build trust during negotiations,” said Francis from the Addameer group. “It is rather used as a tool by the Israeli government to manipulate the prisoners’ issues and distract from their cores issues and demands.”
Those core issues include: house demolitions, the separation wall, the expansion of Jewish settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, Palestinian right of return, final borders for the Two State Solution, and the release of all political prisoners, Francis said.
Regardless of the sour mood surrounding peace negotiations, Palestinians had reason to celebrate on Tuesday. As Deputy Minister of Palestinian Prisoners Ziad abu Ein said, “We welcome them home, all of them. It has been far too long.”