The courtyard of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Gaza office was unusually full Monday morning, when detainees newly released by Israel joined a weekly sit-in by families and supporters of Palestinian prisoners.
“It was a great moment,” Atiyeh Abu Mousa told The Electronic Intifada of his release. A Fatah member, he had been arrested on 30 March 1994 and sentenced to life by an Israeli military court for the killing of Isaac Rotenberg, an Israeli plasterer, on a Petah Tikvah construction site the previous day.
The attack followed Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein’s 25 February 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers, and wounding of 125 others, by machinegun fire in Hebron’s al-Ibrahimi mosque, as well as the subsequent killings of 19 Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces.
Abu Mousa and 14 other detainees crossed the Erez checkpoint, which separates Gaza from Israel, shortly after midnight on Wednesday last week. Eleven others were simultaneously released in the West Bank.
“We can’t explain the sensations and feelings when we came out of the jail,” Abu Mousa said. “I really don’t have the words for them.”
“It was incredible,” said Osama Wahidi, a spokesman for the Hussam Association, a Fatah-affiliated society of current and former Palestinian detainees. Wahidi joined the crowd gathered in Beit Hanoun — as Erez is known in Arabic — to greet the detainees as they entered the Gaza Strip.
“The Israelis planned to free the detainees in the middle of the night, not during the day, to keep Palestinians from celebrating their release,” Wahidi said. “Our people knew this, of course, so they came out by the thousands.”
The atmosphere that night was tumultuous. “When people saw the bus, they broke its windows, grabbed the detainees, and lifted them on their shoulders.”
“There were mixed feelings,” he added. “When you see mothers hugging their freed sons, you can’t help thinking of the detainees still in prison.”
The Monday morning gathering followed a busy few days for the 15 detainees freed in the Gaza Strip. Between a flurry of public events, their supporters circled the territory, visiting tents erected outside their homes, to welcome them and celebrate their freedom.
On Thursday, passengers on a crowded bus from the Hussam Association traded greetings with other delegations they passed, such as those affiliated with Islamic Jihad and the Hamas-led ministry of detainees’ and ex-detainees’ affairs.
“Sacrificed their youth”
“The recent mass prisoner release is a victory for the will of the detainees,” Dr. Atallah Abu Sebah, the minister of detainees’ and ex-detainees’ affairs, told The Electronic Intifada. “There is no doubt they earned it. It is our duty to stand by them, and to work hard so that such individuals may gain their freedom. They sacrificed their youth in Israeli jails for the sake of the Palestinian cause.”
“Freedom is a right for every human being, especially for a political prisoner who spent most of his life in the occupation prisons,” said Dawood Shehab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad.
The release, an Israeli measure offered in exchange for the Palestinian Authority’s participation in a new round of negotiations, is the first of four that will eventually free 104 detainees, including all prisoners held by Israel since the 1993 Oslo agreement, according to PA and Israeli negotiators.
It follows Israel’s agreement in the 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum it signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the agreement, Israel pledged to free detainees imprisoned before the Oslo process.
Most were imprisoned for armed struggle during the first intifada, a period of heightened Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. It began on 9 December 1987 and lasted through the Oslo accords, ratified on 13 September 1994.
During the intifada, Israelis killed 1,162 Palestinians within Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and suffered 160 deaths, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Israel’s partial fulfillment of the 14-year-old deal comes amid a surge in its construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Since talks began in Washington on 29 July, the Israeli government has announced tenders for at least 20 settlement projects, including 2,885 residential units (“Peace Partner?” PLO Negotiation Affairs Department, 13 August 2013).
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is simultaneously considering the Prawer Plan, a proposal to forcibly relocate up to 40,000 Palestinian Bedouin from their homes in the Naqab/Negev region of present-day Israel.
The bill would initiate Israel’s largest mass displacement since its ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, and an additional 400,000 to 450,000 in 1967 (“Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, 2010-2012, Volume VII,” BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, 2 November 2012).
Cover for colonization
In the West Bank, many anti-occupation activists call the negotiations a cover for further Israeli expansion and displacement of Palestinians.
“The latest Israeli moves, including announcements of by now thousands of new settlement units, and the plans to forcibly displace tens of thousands of Palestinians on both sides of the green line [Israel’s internationally-recognized armistice line with the occupied West Bank], show exactly the only outcomes Palestinians can expect from negotiations: more political room for Israeli policies of colonization and ethnic cleansing,” Jamal Juma’, coordinator of the Stop the Wall campaign, told The Electronic Intifada.
“The Israeli government clearly indicated that they will not stop colonial settlement activities even though the United States’ own road map to peace called for such a ‘freeze,’ at least while the negotiations are ongoing,” he said.
“That Israel timed the announcement [of new settlement units] with the beginning of negotiations is simply to emphasize this point. Israel has no intention to get to any peace, only pacification.”
“Building more and more settlements proves that the Israeli government is not serious about peace,” said Issa Amro, coordinator of Youth Against Settlements. “It is not only destroying peace, it is violating international law, which is considered a war crime.”
Amro is one of Palestine’s most frequent detainees himself. Last week, a group of independent United Nations human rights experts called him the target of a “pattern of harassment” by Israel, noting its forces captured him twenty times last year, and another six since the beginning of 2013, before releasing him without charge (“UN experts urge Israel to stop harassment of human rights activist Issa Amro,” 13 August 2013).
“The only solution is for the international community to put more pressure on Israel,” Amro added. “Israel must be boycotted by the international community, then Israeli leaders who support settlements should be taken to the International Criminal Court.
“I think the occupation is very cheap for Israel. We should make it expensive.”
Increasing numbers of Palestinians, especially youth, oppose negotiations. A poll of Gaza Strip and West Bank residents aged between 18 and 30, published recently by Arab World for Research and Development, showed 48 percent opposed an immediate return to talks, while 46 percent were in favor. The survey also found a majority of 52 percent opposed a two-state solution, the ostensible outcome of negotiations.
In Gaza, leaders warned against the use of detainees to extract concessions from Palestinians.
“All Palestinian political prisoners should be released,” remarked Abu Sebah, the minister of detainees’ and ex-detainees’ affairs. “We refuse to consider these people as bargaining chips. This is a political bribe, so that the Palestinian Authority will relinquish other human rights that should be afforded to Palestinians.
“The process of releasing the 104 Palestinian detainees is connected to how successful the negotiations are according to Israeli government standards. We feel this to be a dangerous feature.”
Shehab of Islamic Jihad accused Israel of “overriding humanitarian norms by using these prisoners as leverage, to extort the Palestinian negotiator and force him to make political concessions in exchange for the release of prisoners whose bodies and lives have eroded. We do not trust Israel nor its pledges; hence, we believe that the prisoners’ issue should not be subject to Israel’s goodwill initiatives.”
The list of 26 freed detainees, handpicked by Israel and skewed towards Palestinian residents of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, and especially the Gaza Strip, also showed Israel’s control of the process.
“The setting of the release time and who was to be released was completely controlled by the Israeli government,” Abu Sebah said. “Of prisoners chosen to be released, none are from Jerusalem or 1948 Palestine [present-day Israel], which is disappointing.”
The 15 detainees freed in the Gaza Strip were a majority of both the territory’s 23 detainees eligible for release, according to the total list of 104, and the 26 released in total. Most Palestinians held since the Oslo agreements are residents of the West Bank (“Al-Khoffash: Israeli list of detainees to be freed disappointing,” Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies and Human Rights, 12 August 2013).
Israel initially refused to consider several categories of detainees — Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, Jerusalem residents and citizens of Arab states — for release. It later included those detained since Oslo, expanding the total list of 82 from the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967 to 104. However, no detainees from these groups were among the 26 freed last Wednesday.
“Dozens of Jerusalem, 1948-occupied territories and Arab prisoners’ fates should not be left in Israel’s hands,” Shehab said, adding that of those on the list, “a number were about to finish their prison terms.”
Juma’ of Stop the Wall also commented on how nine of the freed detainees had been nearing the end of their sentences.
“Full amnesty” needed
“The ‘goodwill gesture” of a prisoner’s release is neither compensation nor satisfactory: many of the prisoners were due to be released within a few months,” Juma’ said. “What is really needed is a full amnesty of all Palestinian political prisoners.”
Wahidi of the Hussam Association said the significance of the release should not be understated.
“We need to free our detainees by any means,” he said. “Many previous releases, like the Shalit exchange [a 2011 deal between Hamas and Israel], couldn’t free these detainees. This is a national accomplishment. We welcome all releases and are waiting for more swaps, whether they are political or military in nature.”
Following the release, approximately 5,100 Palestinians remain in Israeli detention. On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed “extreme concern” for the health of seven on long-term hunger strikes, especially Imad Batran, held by the Israeli military on administrative detention — without charge or trial — since November 2011. Batran began his hunger strike on 7 May.
“The life of hunger striker Imad Batran is at immediate risk unless the detaining authorities find a prompt solution,” Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, said in a statement (“ICRC extremely concerned about health of Palestinian hunger strikers,” 17 August 2013).
On Sunday, a group of administrative detainees announced through the Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies and Human Rights that they would begin a series of protests in September followed by a hunger strike in October (“Administrative detainees launch protest steps against administrative detention,” 18 August 2013).
But on Monday morning, the pain and struggle of prison, the focus of the weekly gathering, was momentarily forgotten as hundreds of supporters thronged the freed detainees.
“I’m going to enjoy living in this society, God willing,” Abu Mousa said. “It’s a very civilized community. I hope to get married very soon. After my long detention, I want to end my life in peace, with a good family.”
“And I hope that all the detainees will be released soon,” he added as the chants from the crowd rose.
Then he and his fellow ex-detainees were off again, packed into microbuses and headed for the house of Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas-led administration, for another moment of celebration in the midst of their decades-long struggle.
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and tweets at @jncatron.