jericho prisoners 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Dec. 23 surprise negotiating session with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas was an example of thinking large - although, most likely, not large enough.
The session took place at the Prime Minister's residence. For the first time ever, the Palestinian flag was flown over an official Israeli building. At the meeting, Olmert agreed to release $100 million of Palestinian tax revenue (a portion of Palestinian funds that Israel had withheld from the Palestinian Authority since Hamas was elected). To improve Abbas's military position, Israel agreed to allow troops loyal to him to enter the Palestinian territories from Jordan, and approved the transfer of weapons from Egypt to Palestinian security forces. Israel also agreed to remove more than two dozen roadblocks in the West Bank to ease border crossings to allow the Palestinian economy to begin to recover.
Bold moves, although partially torpedoed by the announcement of the new or expanded Maskiot settlement in the West Bank. And unfortunately a key issue - the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - was not addressed.
IT IS impossible to exaggerate the significance of the prisoners to Palestinians. There are at this time some 9,200 of them, 351 under the age of 18. The prisoners include members of the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, parliamentarians who were snatched this summer.
Ghassan Khatib, a minister in the previous Abbas government, says: "The prisoner issue is crucial because those who have suffered the consequences of imprisonment, whether directly or as relatives of prisoners, constitute a vast majority of society. Secondly, prisoners are also perceived as the most credible members of society because of the sacrifices they have made in resistance to the occupation."
Prisoners are important symbols although some, like the Lebanese thug, Samir Kuntar (who wiped out a Jewish family in Nahariyah in 1979) are just monsters who should never see the light of day. Another was Kuntar's Jewish counterpart, Asher Weisgan, a West Bank settler, who murdered four Palestinian workers in 2005 to protest the Gaza withdrawal. He hung himself (with his tefillin or phylacteries) in prison last month.
But most prisoners are not in that category. Some committed no violent acts. Many haven't even been charged. The main reason no progress was made on the prisoner issue last month is that Hamas is still holding Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured six months ago. Olmert feels he cannot release Palestinian prisoners to Abbas until Shalit is back home or until he at least has both proof that Shalit is alive and a solid commitment that he will be freed.
That is not a commitment Abbas can give Olmert because, Abbas does not know where Shalit is being held and certainly cannot secure his release. Only Hamas can.
But Israel does not negotiate with Hamas. And Hamas will not free Shalit to its worst enemy, Abbas. The Egyptians - nobly trying to finesse the various divides and win freedom for Shalit and the Palestinians - seem to be stymied.
Meanwhile, Shalit and the Palestinian prisoners who would be freed in exchange for Shalit's release remain in captivity.
What a disaster.
But Ben Caspit, the highly respected Ma'ariv correspondent, sees a way Olmert can use the prisoner issue to Israel's advantage.
Caspit believes that, as soon as its feasible, Israel should undertake a massive release of prisoners deemed no longer a danger to Israel and hand them over to Abbas.
Why? "Because the struggle between Abbas and Hamas is crucial to the region's future. Because Hamas should be punished for the kidnapping of Shalit, and the release of prisoners to its great enemy is suitable and appropriate punishment."
In other words, Israel should use the prisoner issue to defeat Hamas. If Palestinians see that only Israel - working with Abbas, and not Hamas - can deliver the commodity they most want, Israel will have inflicted more damage to Hamas than any of the punishment imposed on it since Hamas came to power.