There are an estimated 8,500 Palestinian Arab prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza in Israeli custody. Over 5,000 of them are serving out sentences; 2,300 are awaiting trial, the remainder are in administrative detention. No one would suggest that Israeli prisons are fun places. Each inmate has loved ones who presumably miss them dearly. That said, the incarcerated are menacing figures in the Palestinian "resistance," many having planned, executed or enabled attacks aimed at murdering or maiming Israelis in buses, cafes, nightclubs and hotel banquet rooms. Recently, prisoners in a high-security wing of the Sharon penitentiary - killers mostly - complained to a visiting delegation from the Israel Bar Association of mistreatment: stuffy rooms, poor lighting and such. A more serious allegation, which requires a response from Prison Services Commissioner Lt-Gen. Benny Kaniak, is that members of the elite Nachshon Unit have used dogs to "humiliate" the inmates. The lawyers also questioned the continued incarceration of Mahmoud Azan, who reached Israel from Afghanistan and has been held in administrative detention for 10 years. Israel is reportedly prepared to deport Azan, but no country will have him. Bar Association chair Yuri Guy-Ron declared that the lawyers' subsequent report shows the importance of "having objective professional representatives of the bar continuing to visit prisons in order to view prison conditions." It certainly does. Which is why we are gratified that, on any given day, Israeli prisons are hosting Red Cross representatives, journalists, lawyers and prisoners' advocates, as well as family members. Prisoners are even permitted conjugal visits. WITH THESE thousands of prisoners in Israeli custody, Palestinian society cannot fathom - yet is delighted to exploit - Israelis' fretting over Gilad Schalit, their lone Israeli prisoner, who will mark his third birthday in captivity this Thursday. Putting aside the fact that Schalit is not a terrorist but a simple soldier who was guarding sovereign Israeli soil when he was abducted on June 25, 2006; and that he had done no Arab any harm, probably never having fired his weapon except in training, the biggest distinction between him and the thousands of Arab prisoners Israel holds is that not one of them would want to switch places with the Israeli captive for even a day. Why? The IDF soldier - who under international law should be treated as a POW - is not allowed to see Red Cross representatives or consular officials (Schalit also holds French citizenship). Hamas boasts that he is not permitted to exercise in the sunshine. Not only are his parents forbidden to visit him, only rarely has even a letter or video reached them - and any that did were intended to serve the enemy propaganda machine. Insight into the heartless environment in which Schalit is being held can be gleaned from the popularity of a mock recording of the soldier's mother addressing her son. Gazans by the thousands have downloaded the sound file onto mobile phones and computers. Yesterday, meanwhile, Israel released 198 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, including several killers, in a misguided gesture intended to boost PA President Mahmoud Abbas's standing among his people. Abbas could have used a Ramallah ceremony welcoming the men to talk about reconciliation; to say that the sooner the 60-year-plus war against the Zionist enterprise was halted and a two-state solution accepted by the Arabs, the sooner many more prisoners would be released. He could have mentioned Schalit, if only on humanitarian grounds. Instead Abbas told the crowd: "We will not rest until [all] the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty," specifically citing Marwan Barghouti, serving five consecutive life terms for murder; Ahmed Saadat, imprisoned for the assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi; and Aziz Duaik, a Hamas politician taken into custody in response to Schalit's abduction. It is sobering to remind ourselves that Abbas reflects the most moderate of Palestinian opinion. Writing in Yediot Aharonot on Monday, novelist and playwright Yoram Kaniuk, a government critic who has long expressed compassion for Palestinian suffering, did what Abbas should have done. He urged ordinary Palestinians to call for better treatment of Schalit, and say: "Keeping a young person imprisoned without trial, without his parents being able to visit him, is unparalleled cruelty." It is.