As Palestinian and Israeli representatives assembled in Jerusalem for a second round of talks Wednesday, negotiations are overshadowed by settlement expansion and the conditions of release for 26 Palestinian prisoners.
Celebrations brought out thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as buses transferred the prisoners back to the occupied Palestinian territories.
In Ramallah, Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas received the released prisoners at his presidential compound, where each laid a wreath on the tomb of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
They are the first wave of 104 high-profile prisoners that Israel has agreed to release in four phases as the U.S.-brokered “peace talks” get underway.
It is the first major release of Palestinian inmates since the October 2011 prisoner swap that traded 1,027 Palestinians for former Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held in captivity by Hamas for five years.
President Abbas announced he would “not rest until they are all released,” referring to the thousands of Palestinians still behind bars. Addressing the newly-released men, he said, “You are just the beginning and the rest will come.”
Shawan Jabarin, director of the human rights organization Al-Haq, finds this unlikely. “I am not convinced they will release all of the prisoners, who are supposed to be freed in four stages, because negotiations will fall apart because of settlements,” he told Mint Press News.
Most prisoners near the end of their sentences
Though those released come home to a warm welcome, prisoners are sure to remain a contentious issue. Yet mass prisoner releases lack broad approval among Israelis, particularly the relatives of victims who were killed violently.
On Tuesday night, a small gathering of Israelis protested outside the prison ahead of the release. In the original publication of a New York Times article about the release, which has now been changed, Isabel Kershner quoted the sister of an Israeli man who was killed by one of the prisoners: “‘Don’t let them come home as heroes,’ she said of the prisoners to be released. ‘We will be left holding the pictures.’ Weeping, she added, ‘They are terrorists, not soldiers.’”
Of the 26 men, only one had not been in prison since before the 1994 establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Over half are from the Gaza Strip, and 16 were serving 99-year sentences.
The remaining prisoners were serving sentences that range between 20 and 32 years, according to a list made public by the Israeli government Sunday night. Twelve were “repatriated” to the occupied West Bank, and 14 were transferred to the besieged Gaza Strip.
The list of the prisoners — all of whom were convicted by Israeli military courts of murder or accessory to murder — was released to allow the Israeli public “to allow for last minute legal challenges from the families of victims,” reported The Guardian.
All but two of the released prisoners were arrested during the First Intifada, a popular uprising against Israel’s occupation. Though the Intifada was largely unarmed, the Israeli military killed over 1,000 Palestinians before it subsided, 237 of whom were children.
Addameer Prisoner Support Network says that most of the prisoners have served over 25 years already, and that many were near the end of their sentences.
Prisoners released, more Palestinians arrested
According to the most recent statistics, 5,071 Palestinians are presently in Israeli lockup — a 92-person increase from the previous month. A total of 193 prisoners are children, 41 of whom are under 16 years old. Another 136 are administrative detainees held on “secret evidence” without charge or trial, and 531 are serving life sentences.
Although welcoming the prisoners return, most Palestinians remain skeptical of Israel’s intentions. While Israeli officials tout the release as a gesture of goodwill, human rights organizations and activists point out Israel’s long history of quietly re-arresting released prisoners as well as reneging on similar agreements altogether.
While 23,000 prisoners have been released since 1993 as Israel’s “goodwill gestures,” over 80,000 have been simultaneously arrested.
A recent press release by Addameer rejected the claim that Israel intends to “build trust during negotiations” by releasing prisoners, and said rather that prisoner releases are “used as a tool by the Israeli government to manipulate the prisoner issues and distract from their core issues and demands.”
“The release of these prisoners does not guarantee the end of Israel’s policy of mass detention and arbitrary arrest, nor does it guarantee the rights of over 5,000 who are currently detained, including 136 who are under administrative detention without charge or the right to trial,” the press release added.
Israel insisted in a statement that the released prisoners were neither pardoned nor granted immunity: “The State of Israel reserves the right to take any means necessary against any of the released prisoners if they commit any terrorist and hostile activities as well as returning them to serve the remainder of their [original] sentence, as will be decided by the relevant authorities.”
Gavan Kelly, a representative of Addameer, told Mint Press News that Israel is expected to renege on its end of the deal in any case. “This should not be a surprise to anybody,” Kelly said. “Israel deals with any perceived threat the only way any colonial power can — which is through violence.
“That can mean economic violence by withholding taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority, violence through Israel’s shoot-and-kill policy against peaceful protesters or the violence against prisoners,” Kelly added, referring to recent claims of abuse and threats against hunger-striking prisoners.
Others echo these predictions. “Releasing the prisoners was a tactic — Israel used these prisoners to gain more compromises from the Palestinian side,” Al-Haq’s Jabarin said in an interview.
Negotiations as settlements expand
“Israel has not entered the negotiations in good faith — for good faith, we don’t want just the words but the actions,” Jabarin continued. “The announcement of settlements this week was a message to the Palestinian Authority. It was Israel saying, ‘We can destroy you, and you have no right to say no.’”
The most recent settlement announcement came on Tuesday, when approximately 900 units were approved in Gilo, a settlement that straddles occupied East Jerusalem and usurps land from the Palestinian town of Bet Jala.
“Israel is slapping the Palestinians more and more to teach them a lesson — to say don’t go back to the United Nations, don’t go the International Criminal Court, and it’s a response to the EU’s recent actions,” Jabarin continued, referring to the European Union’s demand that Israel renounce sovereignty outside of the 1967 borders.
According to a press release issued by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Department of Negotiations Affairs on Tuesday, Israel “has promoted over 3,090 settlement units” since July 1. “These illegal settlement activities were coupled with the preparation of new infrastructures, such as [a] new road network that benefits the connectivity of Israel’s illegal settlements,” the release stated.
“We will build thousands of homes in the coming year in [the West Bank],” housing minister Uri Ariel told Israeli public radio Wednesday morning. “No one dictates where we can build.”
Only around 54 percent of the West Bank is accessible to Palestinians, who are essentially cut off from the remainder by the separation wall and settlements that dissect the territory into several isolated islands. Although all settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, the number of settlers has doubled since 1995, sitting today at some 544,000.
Against this backdrop, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met Wednesday in Jerusalem for the first direct talks since September 2010, when Israeli settlement expansion led to a collapse of negotiations.
For the Israelis, according to Jabarin, “peace means controlling all of the West Bank and putting Palestinians into Bantustan-like areas with limited autonomy … But they will not move out of the 1967 areas. They want all the settlements and the land in their hands — this is how Israel understands peace.”
“[Israel] just wants to buy time. They can stop Palestinians on the international stage, take more funding and aid from the U.S., and help their image in the international community,” Jabarin concluded.