Prisoners are no asset

Many Palestinians held in Israeli jails were only peripherally involved in hostile acts.

barghouti prison 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barghouti prison 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
It was during the first intifada - the period of the late Yitzhak Rabin's "break their bones" policy. Rabin, the defense minister at the time, ordered the arrest of thousands of Palestinians. If a Palestinian was seen near anyone who threw a stone at an army personnel carrier or walking by anti-Israel graffiti painted on a wall, he was taken prisoner for an indeterminate amount of time. It was all done under the guise of administrative detention - one of the most anti-democratic tools used by democratic countries. Because the arrests swelled to the tens of thousands, Israel built makeshift prisons at Ketziot in the deep Negev in what became known as Ansar I and II. Overcrowding, lack of proper sanitation, inferior medical services and minimal food supplies characterized conditions in the prisons. Families of the detainees were often kept in the dark as to the whereabouts of those incarcerated. After the intolerable conditions of Ansar leaked out to the world, I joined a few hundred demonstrators who went to Ketziot to protest the establishment of the prisons. We camped out a few hundred meters away. Our purpose was to focus attention on what we felt was a mark of shame upon the Jewish state, whereby indiscriminate collective punishment became the political watchword of the then Likud-Labor unity government. Throughout the many debates that we held, there was one elderly woman who sat in stony silence. Then, on the third day of our protest, she spoke out, castigating us for being politically na ve. "What did you expect? The entire Palestinian population supports the intifada. You cannot distinguish between those who throw stones and those who cheer those who throw them. No treatment is too harsh for them. The Arabs are out to kill us Jews - it's that simple." BEFORE WE all jumped on her, she added: "But jailing every Palestinian is counterproductive. So, I find myself in bed with you moral do-gooders, protesting an errant policy that will prove destructive to Israel in the future." The woman had been a member of the Stern Gang, and had served time in British jails, even as her European relatives had been interred in the Cyprus detention camps. It was during her extended stay behind prison bars that her resolve and the resolve of her fellow underground prisoners was solidified - to fight the British "occupation" of the Land of Israel with a unity and passion previously unmatched. Consequently, for this woman, Israel was fostering a fanatical national movement by placing so many Palestinians behind bars. Once released, these Palestinians would become the leaders of a far more violent uprising - organized, dedicated and unified. Her objection to the mass arrests of Palestinians was an elemental matter of self-interest, not one of moral posturing, like those of us who were protesting outside the Ansar internment camps; although she clearly demonstrated that moral considerations could reap practical benefits. Her prophesy has tragically come true. This is not to say that Israel should not be arresting those who have committed acts of terror, but among those Palestinians held in jails throughout the country are thousands of prisoners who were only peripherally involved in hostile acts against the state. In far too many cases, Palestinians are imprisoned without formal charges and many are innocent bystanders. ON DECEMBER 15, 1992, Yitzhak Rabin deported 415 Hamas members to southern Lebanon for two years. With that one fateful decision, he successfully turned the deportees into national heroes, many would eventually return to haunt us. Some are the very leaders who swept Hamas to victory in the PA elections and whose ideology has become far more radicalized as a result of the deportation. Such will also be the case with those Hamas ministers and parliamentarians who were recently arrested. Stupidly, every Israeli government has provided a fertile training ground for Palestinians to fine-tune their operational and organizational skills. Being in an Israeli jail has become a badge of honor for the Palestinians, just as it became a sign of national commitment for those of the Lehi, the Stern Gang and the Hagana who served time in British jails, along with the Jewish refugees who were held at the Atlit prison camp. Indeed, after the famous Acre jailbreak on May 4, 1947, all those who successfully survived it became more determined in their opposition to the British Mandatory rule. Basic reasoning should have led our security forces to understand that arresting Marwan Barghouti would crown him as a national icon. The situation has become so Kafkaesque that Abu Mazen is negotiating the possibility of establishing a unity government with Hamas based on the Prisoners' Letter that Barghouti authored. One should make no mistake about this document - it is an extremist platform. Although fashioned by a secular Muslim, it is an Islamic fundamentalist's dream come true. The absurdity of it is that prisoners, some of whom are hardened murderers, are now dictating the political policy of the Palestinian Authority, and the international community is heralding this as a hopeful step toward reviving a moribund peace process. Alas, it is we who have created this insane turn of events. Therefore, we should immediately release as many Palestinian prisoners as possible; not only to satisfy the moral imperative of a democratic state, but also to realize practical needs - bringing back our kidnapped soldiers and putting an end to the breeding ground for terrorism that our indiscriminate mprisonment of Palestinians sows.