1027 prisoners with no name speak volumes about the unequal conflict
Israel-Hamas prisoner swap casts harsh light on detention practices of all sides
Amnesty International, Press Release
The prisoner exchange involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and 477 Palestinian prisoners highlights the need for the humane treatment of all detainees in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Amnesty International said today.
“This deal will bring relief to Gilad Shalit and his family after an ordeal that has lasted more than five years. Many Palestinian families will feel a similar sense of relief today when they are reunited with their relatives, many of whom have spent decades under harsh conditions in Israeli detention,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
“However, more needs to be done to protect the rights of thousands of others who remain in detention. The Israeli authorities, the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank must seize this opportunity to ensure respect for the rights of all prisoners and detainees in their custody.”
Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian armed groups from Gaza in a cross-border raid on 25 June 2006. Since then he has been allowed no contact with his family, who have campaigned relentlessly for his release. Nor was he allowed access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite repeated appeals by Amnesty International and other organizations, which made it impossible to verify the conditions of his captivity.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Hamas authorities not to treat Gilad Shalit as a hostage and a bargaining chip, in violation of their obligations under international humanitarian law.
It has also consistently raised concerns with the Israeli authorities about the prison conditions of Palestinian detainees, and the fact that Israel continues to imprison Palestinians from the OPT inside Israel, in violation of its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Over 5,200 Palestinians from the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – and the Gaza Strip, which together comprise the OPT, are currently detained in facilities run by the Israel Prison Service. The vast majority are detained inside Israel.
“International human rights standards and international humanitarian law guarantee every person deprived of liberty the right to humane and dignified conditions of detention, adequate medical care, and regular family visits,” said Malcolm Smart.
“Israel, the Hamas de facto administration, and the Palestinian Authority must ensure that all detainees receive fair and prompt trials meeting international standards, and that judicial rulings on the release of detainees are implemented”.
Since 27 September, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been on hunger strike in protest against recent punitive measures imposed by the Israeli authorities.
Prisoners are demanding that the Israel Prison Service end the arbitrary isolation of prisoners and allow them regular family visits.
The fact that they are detained on Israeli territory makes it difficult, if not impossible for their families to visit them, as the Israeli authorities often refuse to grant them travel permits. Israel suspended family visits for all prisoners from Gaza in June 2007, in a punitive policy that penalizes both the detainees and their families.
The 477 prisoners released by Israel today, including 450 men and 27 women, include 275 sentenced by Israeli military courts to one or more life terms. Prisoners released include those convicted of ordering or carrying out attacks on Israeli civilians.
The Israeli High Court of Justice yesterday rejected appeals against the release filed by Israeli families and organizations opposed to the deal.
In two months time, another 550 prisoners, who have not yet been identified, are due to be released in the second phase of the deal.
Two hundred and seventeen of the prisoners released today will return, without restrictions, to their homes in the Gaza Strip, Israel or the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Fifty-five prisoners will return to their homes in East Jerusalem or other parts of the West Bank under a “security arrangement” which will restrict their movement and subject them to regular monitoring by the Israeli authorities.
Another 164 prisoners from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem will be transferred to the Gaza Strip. According to the Israel Prison Service, 18 of them will be transferred for three years; it is unclear if or when the other 146 will be allowed to return to their families.
While the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are internationally recognised as a single territorial unit under the Oslo Accords and international humanitarian law, the Israeli authorities do not allow Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip access to the West Bank or vice versa. These Palestinians will thus be entirely cut off from their family members with no possibility of visits.
Finally, 41 prisoners, including one woman, will be exiled abroad. Most of them are serving life sentences.
It is unclear whether they are being exiled permanently or will be allowed to return to their homes in the OPT at some point in the future.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from forcibly transferring or deporting people from an occupied territory. In the event that those prisoners being exiled abroad or transferred to Gaza from the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have not given their consent, Israel would be violating its obligations under international humanitarian law.
Campaign Manager – Crisis Response & Country Priorities
Amnesty International UK
The Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap is not a measure of life value, but rather an illustration of the asymmetrical conflict.
Rachel Shabi, Al Jazeera
It doesn’t take long to meet a prisoner family in Palestine. With more than 6,000 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel right now and more than 700,000 in jails since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the Palestinian territories, those stories soon come into the frame – mention of a father, a brother taken away; a swallowing of pain; a distant gaze determined to bring a beloved, absent face into focus.
Now Israel has cut a deal with Hamas to release the soldier Gilad Shalit, five years after his capture, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, these figures allude to the reality of mass Palestinian imprisonment.
With 20 per cent of the population jailed at some point, prison is a feature of Palestinian life under occupation. From the routine night raids that drag family members away, to the opaque military trials, the detention of children (7,000 since the year 2000) and the torture reported by Amnesty to take place in Israeli prisons, it all adds up to a system of control and debilitation.
Israel adheres to the script of countries that try to crush national struggle: criminalise protest; use widespread arrests to show who’s in charge and categorically refuse to count any prisoners as political. Those Palestinian detention figures are shockingly high – but then, the Israeli occupation has been shockingly long, and its permeation into Palestinian life just as deep.
Despite the duration, Hadas Ziv, of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, says the fact Israel blanket-labels all Palestinian prisoners as cold-blooded murderers shows that the country is in a phase which characterises the earliest stages of conflict.
“Once you give people the attributes of an ideology or a political struggle, there is something to talk about,” she says. “When a conflict is approaching resolution, you see a move from propaganda to seeing people as human beings with political standing.”
Political power is one reason why prisoners are so important: because they generate trust and credibility not attributed to politicians, former prisoners can be key to resolution talks. Holding political prisoners is another means of avoiding a political solution to conflict – the continued detention of key Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti testifies to that. Similarly, leaders of the current non-violent popular campaign against Israel’s separation wall – Abdullah Abu Rahmeh and Bassem Tamimi, for instance – know why they are repeatedly arrested and put behind bars.
This component – that arrests devastate individual families but also decimate collective struggle – underpins regular Palestinian campaigns over prisoners; current escalating hunger strikes and solidarity actions are protesting prisoner conditions, in particular the practice of solitary confinement.
But meanwhile, the terms of the Israel-Hamas brokered prisoner swap – one Israeli, whose name the world knows, for 1027 faceless Palestinians – has generated some absurd comments on the value each side places on human life. In reports of how much Israelis care about the soldier Shalit – all true – there is somehow the inference that Palestinians don’t cherish their loved ones in the same way. But it is clearly more approachable a task to keep one soldier’s name in people’s hearts and in the headlines, than it is with countless thousands of Palestinian men. And the undertaking is smoothed by a media skew on the subject: taking part in a panel discussion on reporting the conflict last year, I heard a European journalist explain that Shalit was an easier pitch because he seemed innocent and blameless, while Palestinian prisoners didn’t generate the same assumptions. Meanwhile, the cold exchange rate of a thousand prisoners to one Israeli obviously doesn’t mean that Palestinians morally agree with this equation; it just points to the brutal asymmetry of forces and capacity in this struggle.
There is, however, one setting in which the two sides stand on level ground. When the prisoner deal was announced this week, there were jarringly rare images of both Israelis and Gaza strip Palestinians joyously celebrating the same news story. There it was, in that moment: an equality borne of shared humanity.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab lands.
You can follow Rachel Shabi on Twitter @rachshabi