Analysis: Prisoner release does nothing for Abbas

Best way to boost 'moderates' is to press them to fight corruption.

prisoner release 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
prisoner release 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
It's hard these days to find one Palestinian who regards Israel's decision to release some 200 Palestinian prisoners as a "goodwill gesture." It's also hard to see how the release of the prisoners would "boost" the popularity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas among his people. The argument that the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails strengthens the "moderates" has never proven to be correct. The best way to strengthen the "moderates" at this stage is by putting pressure on them to reform the PA and end financial corruption and the state of lawlessness and chaos in the West Bank. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords 15 years ago, Israel - citing the need to strengthen "moderate" Palestinians - has released thousands of security prisoners. Ironically, in some cases the released prisoners turned out to be a big headache for the "moderate" Palestinian leadership. Shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel freed hundreds of Fatah security prisoners with the hope that they would help Yasser Arafat and his security forces in imposing law and order and fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But many of the released prisoners soon became involved in various criminal activities ranging from armed robberies, extortion, theft and arms trafficking. Others later joined Hamas and other radical groups and became actively involved in armed attacks on Israel during the second intifada. They also became a financial burden on the shoulders of the PA, which had to put the local "heroes" on its payroll and pay them salaries, although many of them were not doing any work. The fact that Israel did not release all the Palestinians and shut down its prisons immediately after the Oslo Accords resulted in many Palestinians losing faith in the peace process and questioning Israel's true intentions. Many Palestinians were hoping that Israel would "close the file" of the prisoners after the beginning of the peace process. As far as they were concerned, real peace meant that there should be no more Palestinians in Israeli jails. But when the Israelis failed to do so, the Palestinians directed their anger not only against Israel, but against the PA as well. Until today, there has been no proof that the release of security prisoners boosted Arafat's standing among his people in the first 10 years of the peace process. Each time Israel used to release a few hundred prisoners, the Palestinians' reaction would be: "Too little, too late." Too little because the Palestinians have always wanted to see at least several thousand prisoners freed, especially those serving lengthy sentences. Too late because most of those released in the past were anyway on the verge of being released after completing their sentences. Over the past three years, the release of security prisoners to "boost" Abbas and Fatah did not prevent Hamas in the end from winning the parliamentary election. Nor did it help Abbas and Fatah when Hamas managed to drive them out of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Today, Israel is hoping that the release of the 200 security prisoners, almost all of whom belong to Fatah, would again strengthen Abbas and Fatah at the expense of Hamas. However, it's highly unlikely that Abbas would benefit from the release of the prisoners because many Palestinians don't give him credit for the move. Rather, these Palestinians see the decision as an attempt on the part of Israel to improve its image on the international arena and extract political concessions from Abbas and his colleagues in Ramallah. A top PA official said, "What's the point in releasing 200 prisoners when Israel is continuing to build in the settlements? Although it's a positive step, I don't see how it's going to bring us closer to peace." Moreover, the decision is seen by Hamas and its supporters as an Israeli attempt to drive a wedge between Fatah and Hamas and deepen divisions among the Palestinians. Similarly, Israel should not expect to make any significant gains as a result of its decision. Even the "moderates" in Ramallah who welcomed the decision were quick to emphasize that it was insufficient and that Israel must now free all the security prisoners. Or, as a prominent academic in Ramallah put it, "Israel is today releasing 200 prisoners to make room in its prisons for the hundreds of Palestinians who were arrested by the Israeli army in the past few weeks."