Get tough on Hamas prisoners

1000s of security prisoners enjoy perks, while Schalit is held incommunicado. It’s time for the government to rectify that intolerable imbalance.

Schalit protests 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Schalit protests 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
More than 1,700 days and nights have passed since the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit on the Gaza border. Two governments – one led by Kadima and one by the Likud – have negotiated intensively with his captors, mediated by an experienced German intelligence official. But so far, there has been no progress. There is no indication of a softening on the part of the militant branch of Hamas holding Schalit. Nor is there an external player, for instance Egypt or the Palestinian Authority, that can guarantee it possesses the leverage needed to bring about a breakthrough.
No one disagrees that the heavy price Israel is being asked to pay to free Schalit is hard to swallow. Several polls and the size of July’s march indicate that a large portion of the public, perhaps even a majority, believes the government must demonstrate the utmost pragmatism. But the red lines that prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu set out are still considered legitimate. It is clear to everyone that their positions reflect a responsibility to prevent a future mass killing of innocents.
Israel has already expressed its willingness to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the vast majority of whom are murderers of Jews. However, according to reports that have not been denied, with a small number of the names on the Hamas list, the government has set boundaries. For some, release is dependent on them not returning to their hometowns in Judea and Samaria. For others, Israel has agreed to release them only in a few years’ time.
As regards certain “heavyweight” prisoners, the negotiating team, headed by Hagai Hadas, has made it clear that it will not include them in any exchange. According to published reports, this category includes the murderers of minister Rehavam Ze’evi and those responsible for horrible terror attacks such as the suicide bombing on Passover in Netanya, in which dozens of elderly people were murdered, and the attack at the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv, in which dozens of youths were killed.
THE STALEMATE in negotiations necessitates that the government rattle the status quo. Assuming that total acquiescence to Hamas’s demands is not an option, and that the government – as it has stated countless times – still sees itself as committed to taking whatever action necessary to free Schalit, there are a number of courses of action available.
One is a pinpoint military operation to free Schalit. Such an option is only possible if there is precise intelligence as to where he is being held. The chances of success depend on the force’s ability to reach the target undetected, so the captors have neither the opportunity to escape nor to harm Schalit before he is rescued.
Operation Entebbe is the crowning achievement of IDF hostage-rescue missions. But Gaza is not an isolated airport terminal in Uganda. It’s one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It is safe to assume that if, almost five years after the kidnapping, conditions have not been right for such action, the chances of a military operation will remain slim for the foreseeable future.
Another course is to apply pressure on Hamas leaders by imposing an economic blockade by both land and sea to stir up Gaza’s residents against them. This has been attempted, but the sharp international criticism over the raid on the Mavi Marmara marked its end. In any event, the blockade did not bring about any flexibility in Hamas’s demands in the Schalit negotiations, and the only actual impact made by the years of blockade was the fanning of the flames of the delegitimization campaign against Israel.
There is yet another course of action, adopted during the years when doubts hovered over the fate of Ron Arad. The government instructed the security services to locate and abduct senior Lebanese militia commanders to both extract reliable information about Arad’s disappearance and to strengthen Israel’s bargaining power if he were alive. In 1989, Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) kidnapped Sheik Abdul-Karim Obeid, a Hezbollah leader, and in 1994, Mustafa Dirani, a leader of the Shi’ite Amal movement, was also taken. The two were held until 2004, and released in exchange for Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers captured on Mount Dov.
I am convinced that seizing “bargaining chips” from the Hamas leadership will strengthen the chances of advancing the release of Schalit through a reasonable exchange. Obviously, operations of this nature are fraught with danger, both to the soldiers and in regard to possible escalations on our southern front. Nevertheless, in the absence of a more effective option, such a move should not be dismissed out of hand.
BEFORE ANY of this, however, a bold decision to drastically change the luxurious conditions Hamas prisoners enjoy must be made. Thousands of security prisoners – the lion’s share of whom are brutal murderers who not only do not express remorse for their actions but are proud of them and swear to return to their murderous ways if given the chance – live in five-star conditions. They study in the Open University. They participate in unlimited sports activities. They receive three hours of outdoor time every day. They can purchase an array of items for thousands of shekels a month from the prison canteen.
Each cell has a television set with 12 channels, including some hostile to the state. They receive any book or magazine they wish. They possess huge stores of food and cooking equipment with which they can prepare gourmet meals for themselves.
Not a single one of these conditions is the result of an international treaty; this is a uniquely Israeli invention, which has no parallel in any other democratic country. Jonathan Pollard, locked away in an American prison since 1985, has not received 10 percent of these perks.
Almost two years have passed since the government established a special committee, headed by the justice minister, to examine the conditions of security prisoners, but nothing has changed. Hamas and Islamic Jihad murderers continue to enjoy their benefits at the expense of the taxpayers, and to meet with their lawyers and family members on a regular basis, while all requests from the Red Cross to meet with Schalit have been rejected by Hamas.
The coalition has even thwarted a number of attempts to pass a law directing prisons to cease providing these privileges to Hamas prisoners.
NOW THE time has come to take action. It can no longer be claimed that a blow to prisoner privileges will hamper negotiations, since there are no negotiations. The government must take the initiative, and the overwhelming majority of the Knesset and the public will give their support.
Obviously, a harsher stance on terrorists’ prison conditions will not guarantee an immediate change in the Hamas leaders’ position. Yet a firmer policy on conditions for security prisoners is morally justified. More importantly, it would provide a clear illustration that the passage of time hurts not only Gilad and his family. It also hurts the direct interests of Hamas.

The writer is a former Kadima minister.