Abbas’s consolation prize

The Palestinians are celebrating Israel’s agreement to free 104 prisoners, but critics say peace talks will yield the PA only ‘minor tactical points.’

Prisoners 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prisoners 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Past the narrow, cramped alleyways of the Dehaishe refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Amoun Abed Rabbo, 81, slowly unpacks a shopping bag filled with bed sheets – the final touch to the brand-new apartment she has prepared for her son, who is expected to be released from prison soon.
Issa Abed Rabbo, 51, is serving a 99- year prison term for killing an Israeli couple back in 1984. He has already spent 29 years behind bars, and is the longest serving Palestinian prisoner from the West Bank.
The “dean of Palestinian prisoners” could be home as early as mid-August. On July 28, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of 104 veteran prisoners, to help restart US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.
Dressed in a long traditional black dress and a loose white headscarf, Abed Rabbo says she is relieved that after nearly three decades of prison visits and constant worrying, her son, who has seen so many prisoners come and go, could finally go free.
“He has already spent two-thirds of his life in prison, “Abed Rabbo tells The Jerusalem Report. “He has the right to spend whatever time he has left at home.”
Her entire living room wall is filled with pictures of her son taken over the years, the latest, shows a clean-shaven, thin, bald man in a brown prison uniform, smiling slightly.
“The entire refugee camp will celebrate, dance and sing in the street the day Issa comes home,” Majed Hamad, a neighbor, tells The Report. “It will be like a big wedding.”
Palestinians regard prisoners held in Israeli prisons as heroes, symbols of their struggle for statehood. And the release of any prisoner is cause for public celebration.
Israel, who holds some 4,800 in its jails, says the majority are terrorists with blood on their hands.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has long demanded that Israel release prisoners held since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in1993, the interim peace deal that led to the creation of the PA.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the move, which he said comes 14 years late. “This Israeli cabinet decision is an overdue step towards the implementation of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement of 1999 whereby Israel committed to release all the pre-Oslo prisoners,” he said in a statement.
The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a two-state solution, establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, to exist peacefully alongside Israel.
Secretary of State John Kerry, after making six trips to the Middle East in less than six months in office, managed to coax Palestinians and Israelis back to negotiations on July 30, after nearly three years of political stagnation. Kerry, who urged the two sides to make “reasonable comprises,” said a second round of talks is scheduled for the middle of August, and a final-status agreement should be reached within nine months.
Before agreeing to return to talks, Palestinians demanded the release of veteran Palestinian prisoners, a freeze of settlement building in the West Bank and a guarantee that negotiations over borders will be based on the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel has agreed to only one demand, to release prisoners as a goodwill gesture, in four stages, depending on the progress of the talks.
Analysts say, despite giving Abbas a victory, a prisoner release would allow Netanyahu to bypass the other Palestinian demands. “This is a consolation prize for Abbas,” Birzeit University professor George Giacaman told The Report.
“After being pressured by the US to go to the talks and drop his long-held position on settlements and borders,” Giacaman said, “a prisoner release is all he is going to get.”
Giacaman says since most Palestinians support prisoner releases, it will give Abbas a much-needed popularity boost, albeit a short-lived one. “The day after all the celebrations, Palestinians will realize that actually nothing has changed,” he said.
Palestinians say the Jewish settlements spread out over the West Bank are illegal and deny them the possibility of a contiguous state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to stop their construction and says that he wants to keep the larger settlement blocks a part of Israeli territory under any peace deal.
It is unclear how the United States, who has kept most details about the talks secret, hopes to help resolve the core issues of the conflict: Jewish settlements in the West Bank, final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
In downtown Ramallah, the de facto capital of the PA, Palestinians say they are deeply disappointed by over two decades of on-and-off negotiations with Israel that have failed to deliver them a state, and doubt that a prisoner release will be enough to pave the way to a peace treaty that would end the six-decade-old conflict.
“A prisoner release is great, but for what price?” Samer Radwan, 56, a taxi driver caught in rush-hour traffic, tells The Report.
“Palestinians will only be forced to make more concessions,” Radwan says, while lowering the volume on his car radio.
Deep internal divisions further threaten the success and the implementation of any deal. Hundreds of protesters from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine staged a rally in Ramallah on July 28 against the resumption of peace talks, clashing with Palestinian security forces who tried to squash the protest.
Resuming talks is also unpopular among some members of Abbas’s own Fatah party, and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is fiercely opposed to the move.
According to a June survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 56 percent of respondents opposed a return to negotiations without preconditions, and though 53 percent supported the two-state solution, 58 percent believed it was no longer practical due to Israeli settlements.
Birzeit University political science professor Basem Zubeidi says Palestinians are increasingly opposed to the talks because they are unconvinced of their leaders’ ability to negotiate with Israel, viewing the PA as weak and lacking in political sovereignty, as it ultimately operates under Israeli control.
“So long as the balance of power is in Israel’s favor,” Zubeidi tells The Report, “Palestinians will remain in a weak position only able to accept watered-down proposals.”
Observers say Palestinian leaders have gone to the talks hoping to win back world attention after nearly three years of revolutions and political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa left the Palestinian cause sidelined.
The Palestinian leadership, political analyst Khalil Shaheen said, hopes that the fresh round of talks will bring their cause back to the top of the world’s agenda. “Palestinians think the negotiations will create dynamics in their favor,” Shaheen comments to The Report.
But, ultimately, Shaheen says they will only manage to score “minor tactical points,” such as the economic package Kerry proposed, an easing of Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza, and the prisoner release – all of which will not have any long-term benefits.
“If Palestinians continue in these talks, they could find themselves in a new interim situation that is worse than Oslo,” he said.
Many Palestinians are deeply critical of the Oslo Accords signed 20 years ago, which they believe only further cemented Israeli control over Palestinian territory, economy and movement.
But for the families of those likely to be freed, many serving multiple life sentences for deadly attacks, the imminent prisoner release is cause for hope.
In the Dehaishe refugee camp, Abed Rabbo walks slowly with a walker towards the kitchen to look on while her daughters prepare for iftar, the fast-breaking meal for Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
Holding prayer beads in one hand, she says she hopes the prisoner release will create the right atmosphere to reach a peace settlement with Israel. She says her son’s lengthy imprisonment and the suffering it brought on her family have convinced her of the importance and urgency of ending the conflict.
“God-willing, we will learn how to live with one another,” she says with a nod. “Anyone who says otherwise is deluding himself.”