Israel is liable for war crimes over the prisoner issue now that the Palestinian Authority has ratified the four Geneva Conventions, including the one relating to prisoners of war, PA officials charged on Thursday.
To mark Palestinian Prisoner Day, they renewed their call for Israel to release all 5,300 security prisoners held in Israeli jails, noting that the 15 treaties and conventions they had ratified earlier this month – including the Geneva Conventions – allowed them to harness international law to support their cause.
Given that the “State of Palestine” has signed the conventions, there is a “legal, humanitarian and moral duty to exert real pressure to stop aggression against the prisoners and to stop Israel from committing more war crimes,” said Wasel Abu Yusef of the PLO Executive Committee.
“According to international law, these prisoners are fighting for the freedom of their people,” Abu Yusef said of the security prisoners.
Israel charges that many of the prisoners were involved in terror activity. Palestinians, in turn, claim that those being held are political prisoners and were fighting on behalf their people’s freedom.
“These are prisoners of war, and all international laws apply to them, particularly now that Palestine is a state,” said Abu Yusef.
An Israeli official, however, said that it was the Palestinians who had now made themselves vulnerable by signing the Geneva Conventions, particularly on the issue of launching rockets from Gaza into Israel.
“According to the Geneva Conventions, the entire Palestinian leadership should be immediately indicted for the thousands of rockets that have been fired from Palestinian territories into Israel in what is a double war crime,” the official said.
Palestinians “deliberately targeted innocent civilians, and they are using Gaza’s civilian population as a human shield,” the official continued. “The Palestinians should be extremely careful if they think that international legality can be exploited as a tool against Israel.”
He warned that if the Palestinians continued along this path, “they might find some very uncomfortable truths about their own behavior. When it comes to law, Israel upholds the highest standards of international conduct.”
On Thursday, rallies took place in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Tulkarm and Gaza under the slogan “United behind our prisoners.” Participants called on Israel to free all Palestinians in its jails.
The prisoner issue is a sensitive one for Palestinians, but emotions have run particularly high over the issue since March, when Israel failed to release 26 Palestinian prisoners as promised.
Talks about freeing those 26 prisoners and additional ones are at the center of face-to-face meetings that Israeli, Palestinian and American diplomats are holding. It is expected that some form of prisoner release will be part of any package deal to extend peace negotiations beyond their April 29 deadline.
Public opinion in Israel has swung against any further releases as an incentive to the Palestinians to continue negotiations.
Such calls grew stronger after a pre-Passover attack on Monday in which a Palestinian terrorist killed Baruch Mizrahi, a father of five, while he was driving with his family on Route 35 in the West Bank. Mizrahi’s wife, Hadas, was moderately wounded, and their eightyear- old son was lightly hurt. Another boy, age nine, was lightly wounded in the attack.
Hadas has called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu not to release any more prisoners.
On Thursday, PA Minister for Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqi told rally-goers in Ramallah that “there will be no agreement and no peace and no extension of the negotiations unless the gates of the prisoners are opened and our prisoners enjoy freedom.”
He added that PA President Mahmoud Abbas “has rejected any blackmail with regard to the prisoners and has given them top priority.”
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi said affirming the four Geneva Conventions as well as other international treaties had given a boost to the struggle to release the prisoners, because international law and humanitarian law could be applied to them.
She called for an international commission of inquiry to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of the prisoners. She accused Israel of medically neglecting the prisoners, holding them in solitary confinement, mistreating and torturing them. These acts are “tantamount to war crimes,” she said.
Ambassador Alan Baker, a former legal adviser for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, disputed the claim that the Palestinians were prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. The Palestinians are not fighting “an armed conflict,” he asserted, noting that “they were put in prison for terrorism and tried for terrorism.”
But chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Israel had a prior obligation to release the prisoners, including under the Oslo Accords and the Sharm e-Sheikh agreement, and that it was further obligated to free the 26 prisoners.
“For Palestinians, having loved ones in prison is not the exception; it is something that has affected every Palestinian family,” he said. “The plight of the prisoners reflects the plight of the Palestinian people as a whole.”
Israel’s incarceration of Palestinian prisoners “reflects one of the worst experiences of imprisonment in contemporary history, designed to break the will of an entire nation seeking freedom,” he said.
He said the imprisoned included administrative detainees, the infirm, women and minors, and noted that in the past, Palestinian parliamentarians had also been imprisoned.
“Israel has criminalized all forms of resistance, both armed and peaceful, and even political and civic engagement. The Palestinian leadership has chosen to resist through diplomatic and peaceful means in order to achieve the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights as enshrined in international law,” Erekat said.
Meanwhile, violent clashes broke out Thursday between the IDF and Palestinian activists in Hebron near the Policeman’s Checkpoint for the second day in a row.
The checkpoint separates the PA-controlled section of the city from the section that is under Israeli military and civil control.
The latest clashes occurred on the sidelines of a Hebron demonstration.
On both Thursday and Wednesday, violence occurred on the Palestinian side, where some 50 rioters, angry at Israel over its failure to release prisoners, threw stones in the direction of the checkpoint. The rioters also threw stones at IDF soldiers and Border Police who attempted to quell the violence with riot dispersal means that included tear gas.
On Wednesday evening, the IDF wounded seven Palestinians after the clashes broke out near the checkpoint.
The incidents took place as thousands of visitors streamed to the Cave of the Patriarchs and other Jewish areas of the city to celebrate Passover.
Violence also broke out in Jerusalem on Wednesday, where hundreds of Palestinians threw stones and firecrackers at police when the police opened the main entrance to the Temple Mount.