Palestinians in Ramallah hold pictures of prisoners 370 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
In November 1992, the joint Israeli-Palestinian strategic think tank I founded
some years before, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information,
convened a series of discreet meetings between Israeli and Palestinian security
experts in London. Several former generals, ex-Mossad and ex-Shin Bet people
made up the Israeli team. The Palestinian team included one person from the West
Bank, several people based in London and one security expert sent from Tunis by
the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The talks were extremely
serious. The PLO security man reported back to Arafat several times a day. Prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin received a detailed report from one of the ex-generals.
The central questions were what it would take in terms of Palestinian capacity
to secure territories from which Israel would withdraw, and to also cooperate
with Israeli security forces to prevent terrorism and attacks against Israel. We
dealt with the size of the Palestinian force necessary, the kind of weapons
needed, and the mechanisms for security cooperation, especially in the field of
intelligence gathering and sharing.
We also confronted the issue raised
by the Palestinians – the need to release Palestinian prisoners who had fought
against Israel prior to a possible agreement. The assumption was that if Israel
was to negotiate with the PLO and reach an agreement then all of the Palestinian
prisoners in Israeli prisons who were combatants would be released with the
signing of the agreement. This was presented in Arafat’s name as a step required
to gain legitimacy for the concessions that he would have to make in a peace
deal with Israel.
As it was, many of the pre-Oslo prisoners were released
with the signing of Oslo.
Many Palestinian combatants who had been
deported by Israel returned to Palestine with Arafat and became the most
important leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the strongest advocates of
peace. But here we are 20 years after Oslo and there are still 123 Palestinian
prisoners arrested and convicted prior to Oslo who remain in prison. The
Palestinian leadership has been given repeated promises by past Israeli prime
ministers that they would be released, but they have not been.
been reported that over 800,000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons.
The prisoner experience is something that every Palestinian family has
confronted. The political struggle for the release of Palestinian prisoners is
perhaps the issue which has the greatest capacity to bring us all to the next
intifada. Today there are more than 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, most
of them for minor offenses, not for killing Jews.
Another common cause
pushed on the agenda by the Palestinian public and the international community
is the demand to cease the use of administrative detentions. This is simply the
right to arrest people without charges, imprison them without a trial and hold
them almost indefinitely without the right to legal defense.
Minister Menachem Begin claimed this was undemocratic and contrary to the
principles that he held dear. He was unsuccessful in removing the practice
because the security people convinced him that bringing administrative detainees
to court would require disclosing sources (collaborators). In other words,
Palestinians paid by Israel can provide testimony against their neighbors that
can result in arrest, and no one has to prove anything.
It is far past
the time to release the 123 pre-Oslo prisoners. They have all served more than 20
years in prison. They were fighters against Israel prior to the Oslo process. We
spoke with Arafat, we continue to work with Palestinian security officers, many
of whom were also combatants against Israel prior to Oslo. There is no good
justification for keeping them in prison. Their release will be widely
appreciated by Palestinian society and will provide much needed legitimacy for
PA President Mahmoud Abbas. It is also a good first step toward creating a new
atmosphere for a new Israeli government.
The new government should also
declare that it will cease using the tool of administrative detentions and that
those 250 or so administrative detainees currently in prison will either be
brought to trial or immediately released.
The Palestinian leadership has
already submitted to US Secretary of State John Kerry a list of requests to
renew confidence and trust between the parties and to create the political
environment that could encourage the renewal of serious negotiations. That list
includes, of course, the prisoner issue. We can probably expect US pressure on
Israel to give in to some of those Palestinian requests.
It is clear that
Israel will have its own requests to the Palestinians. Palestinians have to
begin to deal with incitement issues. They must guarantee continued security
cooperation. The must continue to freeze plans to internationalize the conflict
and not go to the international courts in the Hague. These would be reasonable
Israeli demands and should gain American support as well.
It is also
likely both sides will have a list of requests to the US in order to assist in
renewing serious negotiations. The Palestinians will probably request that the
administration unfreeze US financial support for the Palestinian economy which
has been held up by Congress for several years. Israel certainly has the
grounds, in light of the request to release Palestinian prisoners, to ask that
the US finally release Jonathan Pollard. He too has paid for his crime and it is
time to allow him to come home to Israel.
Bringing Pollard into the
question of Israeli-Palestinian relations is based on the context of the US
desire to improve the chances of a positive negotiating process between the
parties. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, while not linking the two issues,
should indicate to the Americans that it would be a lot easier for him to
release the 123 pre-Oslo prisoners if Jonathan Pollard would be allowed to come
home. It is not conditional, but it would improve the atmosphere and provide
greater legitimacy for Netanyahu to answer positively the Palestinian requests
(coming through the Americans).
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI,
the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The
Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for
the release of Gilad Schalit.