Israel’s asymmetrical prisoner swap

The Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap is not a measure of life value, but rather an illustration of the asymmetrical conflict.

Mother of jailed palestinians
Holding political prisoners is a means of avoiding political solutions to conflict [EPA]

It doesn’t take long to meet a prisoner family in Palestine. With more than 6,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel right now and more than 700,000 in jails since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories, those stories soon come into the frame – mention of a father, a brother taken away; a swallowing of pain; a distant gaze determined to bring a beloved, absent face into focus. 

Now Israel has cut a deal with Hamas to release the soldier Gilad Shalit, five years after his capture, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, these figures allude to the reality of mass Palestinian imprisonment.

With 20 per cent of the population jailed at some point, prison is a feature of Palestinian life under occupation. From the routine night raids that drag family members away, to the opaque military trials, the detention of children (7,000 since the year 2000) and the torture reported by Amnesty to take place in Israeli prisons, it all adds up to a system of control and debilitation.

Israel adheres to the script of countries that try to crush national struggle: criminalise protest; use widespread arrests to show who’s in charge and categorically refuse to count any prisoners as political. Those Palestinian detention figures are shockingly high – but then, the Israeli occupation has been shockingly long, and its permeation into Palestinian life just as deep.  

Despite the duration, Hadas Ziv, of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, says the fact Israel blanket-labels all Palestinian prisoners as cold-blooded murderers shows that the country is in a phase which characterises the earliest stages of conflict.

“Once you give people the attributes of an ideology or a political struggle, there is something to talk about,” she says. “When a conflict is approaching resolution, you see a move from propaganda to seeing people as human beings with political standing.”

Political power is one reason why prisoners are so important: because they generate trust and credibility not attributed to politicians, former prisoners can be key to resolution talks. Holding political prisoners is another means of avoiding a political solution to conflict – the continued detention of key Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti testifies to that. Similarly, leaders of the current non-violent popular campaign against Israel’s separation wall – Abdullah Abu Rahmeh and Bassem Tamimi, for instance – know why they are repeatedly arrested and put behind bars. 

This component – that arrests devastate individual families but also decimate collective struggle – underpins regular Palestinian campaigns over prisoners; current escalating hunger strikes and solidarity actions are protesting prisoner conditions, in particular the practice of solitary confinement.

But meanwhile, the terms of the Israel-Hamas brokered prisoner swap – one Israeli, whose name the world knows, for 1027 faceless Palestinians – has generated some absurd comments on the value each side places on human life. In reports of how much Israelis care about the soldier Shalit – all true – there is somehow the inference that Palestinians don’t cherish their loved ones in the same way. But it is clearly more approachable a task to keep one soldier’s name in people’s hearts and in the headlines, than it is with countless thousands of Palestinian men. And the undertaking is smoothed by a media skew on the subject: taking part in a panel discussion on reporting the conflict last year, I heard a European journalist explain that Shalit was an easier pitch because he seemed innocent and blameless, while Palestinian prisoners didn’t generate the same assumptions. Meanwhile, the cold exchange rate of a thousand prisoners to one Israeli obviously doesn’t mean that Palestinians morally agree with this equation; it just points to the brutal asymmetry of forces and capacity in this struggle.

There is, however, one setting in which the two sides stand on level ground. When the prisoner deal was announced this week, there were jarringly rare images of both Israelis and Gaza strip Palestinians joyously celebrating the same news story. There it was, in that moment: an equality borne of shared humanity.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab lands.

You can follow Rachel Shabi on Twitter @rachshabi

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.