Prisoners, atmosphere and negotiations

ENCOUNTERING PEACE: It is far past the time to release the 123 pre-Oslo prisoners. They have all served more than 20 years in prison.

Palestinians in Ramallah hold pictures of prisoners 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
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.
It has 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.
Prime 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.