Creating people's geographies
Cartoonist Eran Wolkowski
“The release (of Palestinian prisoners) tomorrow is a joke. The majority of the prisoners would have been released anyway in the next few months. It is possible to release thousands of prisoners and not just 400. Abu Mazen asked for more, but they wouldn’t let him have any more.”
The Jerusalem Post reports that 400-500 “terror operatives” are arrested each month by IOF forces operating in the West Bank, about the same number of Palestinian prisoners released on Monday.
The homecoming detainees – most from the West Bank – are a small proportion of the 9,000+ prisoners held in Israeli jails, and they do not include long-term detainees who were jailed before the Oslo accords in the early Nineties.
As Ha’aretz editorialised in An endless pool of prisoners (22 Nov):
Why is Israel releasing 440 Palestinian prisoners specifically ahead of the Annapolis conference, and not 500 or 300, or 2,000 as the United States had expected? The impression is that no one is exercised by the security risk entailed in releasing prisoners – aside from politicians who want to make political capital off of it – and that all the wheeling and dealing revolves around the question of how many prisoners “are worth wasting” on this or that event.
This regular game with the fate of people – some 10,000 of them – who are incarcerated in Israel, taking no account of the length of their prison sentences but only the political utility their fate can serve, warps Israel’s image as a law-abiding state. If at any given moment there is a pool of candidates for release, it stands to reason they could have been released long ago.
The impression created is that Israel’s prisons have become a gestures bank with revolving doors: At night they arrest dozens of wanted gunmen, and in the morning decide to release several hundred, just so long as the supply of prisoners doesn’t dry up and a few dozen candidates for immediate release are always available.
Neither does the process by which Palestinians become prisoners resemble an ordinary criminal proceeding. They are abducted at night from their homes or city streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, after which a few stand trial, at which the evidence presented is unlikely to meet the strict criminal standards employed in Israel.
And when there is no evidence, people are detained without trial for a period that gets extended as needed. The conspicuous example is the Palestinian parliament members from Hamas who were kidnapped after soldier Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner.
The 9,800 security prisoners transferred in recent years to the care of the Israel Prisons Service – after a small number of them had been in military detention camps – have made the prisons overcrowded to a degree unparalleled anywhere in the West. During the 1990s, Israel released some 10,000 prisoners as part of the Oslo Accords, but the prisons filled up again and once more there are 10,000 Palestinians behind bars.
In the run-up to Annapolis there have been several rounds of releases: 250 prisoners ahead of the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, 90 prisoners for the Ramadan holiday, and now another 440 in anticipation of next week’s conference.
The revolving door creates the feeling that there is a mutual understanding between the government and the military judicial system, and that the judges know too that sentences handed down are merely grounds for negotiation; that prisoners are a reservoir of bargaining chips. In return for a captive, thousands are released; in return for the Annapolis conference, only a few hundred; and in honor of a holiday – a few dozen.
Holding prisoners for the purpose of bargaining is a distortion of the rules of justice. If there are thousands of prisoners in jail who pose no security risk, it would be better to release them not in measured batches and not ahead of events, but as soon as possible. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the easiest gesture Israel can make is releasing prisoners, the resulting impression is that they are being held just for that purpose. That is a highly problematic reason for incarceration.