The Most Important Prisoner in the Whole Wide World

Its possible that there is a name more well-known than Gilad Shalit this week, but not likely. For the last two days, media of all kinds have been tripping over themselves trying to describe, explain, hagiographize, and contextualize Shalit, who is to be released soon after a five year detention by Hamas in a prisoner swap.

But the silence on the one thousand Palestinian lives to be exchanged for Shalit is deafening. Many Palestinians and supporters have been fuming at the discrepancy, but its not entirely true that all of the names and faces of the likely thousand to be released have been ignored. Rather, US media drama queens have enthusiastically joined in the shirt-rending of Israeli punditry and officials about the “terrorists” and “murderers” that are likely to be released under the deal, enumerating Hamas’ alleged top ten list of prisoners implicated in some act of violence against Israelis during the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Media Mirror Israeli Focus on Schalit

Mainstream media have been happy to have Israeli officials direct the narrative for them. The Associated Press [Wednesday, October 12] introduced an article by reiterating the anxiety Israelis now claim to suffer under with the release of the Palestinian prisoners. Jennifer Rubin’s column in the Washington Post was particularly nauseating. Though Rubin, like others, has no concrete list of the prisoners that will be released, she offers one anyway, richly embroidered with misleading statements. The Washington Post also carried a primer on Schalit, as well as a photo story which even seemed to imply that even Gazans care more about Schalit’s release than that the freedom of other Palestinians.

New York Times Jerusalem Desk Editor, Ethan Bronner excelled at the one sided coverage he is now famous for, reiterating Israeli talking points and reinforcing the idea that Palestinian prisoners in general present a threat of violence for Israelis:

Israel worries about having to contend with dozens of convicted militants’ suddenly being freed, some of them to the West Bank […] Israel agreed to allow more prisoners back into the West Bank even though the history of such releases suggests that some released killers return to violence

This is highly ironical in that there are no guarantees that Israel will not simply arbitararily arrest more Palestinians soon after the swap, as it has done in the past. But, of course, those are Palestinian concerns, and apparently not worth reporting. Though Bronner reports on a local strike in support of Palestinian prisoners, he fails to mention the hunger strike currently being waged by Palestinian prisoners , nor a solidarity strike by Haifa youth within the 1948 borders.  Bronner visited Gaza and the West Bank, but did not bother seeking out families with loved ones in Israeli prisons. As Ali Abunimah notes, Bronner also misleads readers about Israel’s cross-border attack on Egyptian soldiers.

Disinterest in the Personal Stories of Palestinian Prisoners

Fond of Schalit’s case, media organizations like the NYT, the Washington Post and CNN have an odd antipathy to the plight of over 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Certainly, there’s been a disinterest in the fact that at least 200 of the Palestinian prisoners will be exiled to Gaza and other countries. Such reporting ensures that many Americans by now know well the name of combat soldier Shalit. Some may even know the names of the most notorious [by American standards] of Israel’s prisoners. It remains unlikely that they will ever know any others.  They’ll hear little or nothing of the over 5,000 political prisoners currently in Israeli jails.

Certainly, not the names of over two hundred Palestinians under administrative detention, charged with no crimes at all, some incarcerated for over two or as many as five years. Not the names of Naji and Bassem Tamimi, who were arrested by Israel’s occupation forces for civil disobedience against a totalitarian military regime—acts which are celebrated throughout the region with the one exception being the Arab world’s “only democracy”.

Not the name of Hana Al Shalabi, a twenty-eight year old Jenin resident, never charged with a crime, but held in concurrent administrative detention for over two years. Not the name of Ayed Dudeen, an ambulance driver and activist, recently arrested again just a few weeks after being released from a four year stint of Israeli administrative detention.

Like Dudeen and many other Palestinians, the Tamimis had been arrested several times over the last two decades, and held for various periods, but never charged. The Tamimis have recently been jailed for the alleged offense of “solicitation” to throw stones at Israeli soldiers—a charge too ridiculous to be distinguished from administrative detention except for its advantage of having an end-dated sentence.

There is little that separates Israeli occupation justice—used like a magic wand by Israel to intimidate Palestinian communities and their leaders for over forty years—from the one imposed on Schalit by Hamas. The biggest difference, of course, is that Palestinians have only one prisoner: an adult who volunteerd for combat service in a military occupation. Somehow, at that time and since, the story that Israel holds thousands of Palestinians—some in a never-ending cycle of renewable detention, some of them even children—has been rejected again and again, in favor of ongoing saga of Schalit and his long suffering family. The dynamic continues today and shows no sign of abating soon.


Jaime Omar Yassin

Jaime Omar Yassin has been involved in alternative media for nearly twenty years, and believes that popular participation in the creation and interpretation of news is crucial to substantive and lasting change. He’s worked with Paper Tiger Television, Manhattan Neighborhood Network, written for Extra! and other independent magazines, published fiction and non-fiction and maintained his own blog—Hyphenated Republic—for the last seven years. He is a product of two diasporas, living in a nation that tends to collect them. He tries to do right by all three.