There is an open-ended prisoner strike taking place in Israel’s prisons. Palestinians call these prisoners freedom fighters and Israel calls them terrorists. There is no doubt that among the Palestinian prisoners there are terrorists, people who have killed innocent Israeli civilians for political purposes. There are others who killed military and security personnel, and although Israeli society considers them terrorists as well, international law does accept the concept of resistance to what is referred to as illegal occupation.
There are other prisoners in jail for crimes such as being caught inside Israel without a permit, throwing stones at cars or soldiers, being suspected of doing something illegal against Israel or the occupation, incitement to violence and more. Almost every Palestinian family has had members at one time or another in an Israeli prison. The number is believed to be more than 800,000 Palestinians since 1967. Currently there are 6,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including 57 women and 300 minors.
Almost all of the Palestinian prisoners, with the exception of Marwan Barghouti, were convicted in military prisons in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention for occupied territories, and not in Israeli civil courts. There are also currently about 500 Palestinians under administrative detention – meaning that they have been arrested without being charged and imprisoned without being convicted in any court of law.
The overwhelming majority of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are not murderers. Forty-four of the 6,500 prisoners have been locked up for more than 20 years, including 29 who were supposed to be released in 1994 after Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo agreement with the person considered by Israel to be an arch-terrorist: Yasser Arafat. About 20 of the prisoners are suffering from fatal illnesses such as cancer. Most of the prisoners are young men. Most of the prisoners are there because they took actions against the continuation of what they see as the illegitimate Israeli occupation and the denial of their basic rights to freedom and liberation. They are part of a national struggle and they are seen as such by themselves and by their people.
The situation of so many political/security prisoners is no different from that in every other political struggle of a people seeking its own liberation. This is true of the Zionist Jewish struggle for national liberation; the fact is that there were many Jews in British prisons prior to 1948, including those who killed British soldiers and officials, and Arabs, and they were seen as heroes of the Zionist movement.
There are internal Palestinian political disagreements about the prisoners’ strike, but there is no absence of support for the Palestinian prisoners all over Palestine. The demands of the strikers are for a combination of political and human rights. Israel asserts that it stands by its obligations to prisoners under international law, but the demands of the prisoners go beyond what international law dictates.
The Israel Prison Service and the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) have always determined and adhered to prison conditions in full awareness that “peace” in the prisons can help maintain prison security and, to a great extent, security outside the prisons. It is clear that because the issue of prisoners touches every single Palestinian family, uprisings in the prisons can easily lead to bursts of violence outside of the prisons. The new hunger strike, although it presently only includes less than 20% of the prisoners, could easily escalate into a much wider strike and just as easily bring a new wave of violence from the Palestinian street.
Israelis and Palestinians, and their relative supporters in the region and around the world, view the issue of Palestinian prisoners in diametrically opposing ways. Every single term listed above is loaded and Israelis and Palestinians see them quite differently. There is almost no middle ground with regard to how each side views the prisoners. Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the current strike, is a hero in the eyes of Palestinians and a terrorist in the eyes of Israelis. Barghouti is consistently the front runner in Palestinian public opinion polls over the past 15 years. He came out number one in the internal Fatah elections just two months ago. He was in the past secretary-general of Fatah and number one in the Palestinian Parliament from Fatah. From 1996 to 2000 he led the Tanzim of Fatah to hold more than 400 town hall meetings in every town, village and refugee camp that built cadres of support that backed his leadership in the second intifada.
Although he has been out of the political arena and behinds bars in Israel for 15 years, Barghouti remains one of the most popular Palestinian leaders among the young people of Palestine. The attempts of some of the so-called Israeli experts on Palestinian affairs to dub Barghouti as the leader of a small circle of Fatah Ramallah demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Palestinian political reality. Even if other Palestinian leaders emerge in the future, Barghouti will hold a place in the hearts and minds of Palestinians as a hero. By the way, Barghouti continues to believe in the twostate solution and peace between Palestine and Israel.
Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and even Yitzhak Rabin were viewed by Palestinians as terrorists. Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and not only Khaled Mashal, Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Senwar are all considered terrorists by Israelis. Even as the Israeli media continues to “explain” the prisoners’ strike to the Israeli public as a group of terrorists following another terrorist for internal political reasons, it is important that thinking people understand that one day all or almost all of the Palestinian prisoners will go free and will get amnesty in the framework of a genuine Israeli Palestinian peace agreement. This is what always happens when conflicts come to a close. It will happen here as well. This has also been my advice to Palestinian political leaders both from the Palestinian Authority and from Hamas – the best way to bring Palestinian prisoners home and set them free is to make genuine peace with Israel.
The writer is the Founder and Co-Chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives www.ipcri.org.