June 27, 2011 Edition 18 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Gilad Shalit and Palestinian prisoners
Faulty strategic calculations  - Yossi Alpher
Under present conditions, after Gilad's release a repeat of the Shalit affair is inevitable.

Let the suffering end  - Ghassan Khatib
The prisoner issue is one of the most significant aspects of the conflict.

Doing everything possible? I don't believe them  - Gershon Baskin
The past five years suggest that the understanding between the people and the state might no longer exist.

We also have feelings  - an interview with Qadura Fares
Conditions in Israeli prisons are very difficult.

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Faulty strategic calculations
 Yossi Alpher
If I were Gilad Shalit's father, I would do everything he is doing, and more if possible, to persuade the Netanyahu government to meet Hamas' demands for a prisoner exchange and obtain Gilad's release. If I were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, I would refuse the deal for fear of the consequences of releasing so many truly vile terrorists back into society.

There are no objective criteria and conditions here for doing a deal or not. Whatever happens--and eventually something will happen--the deal will look desirable to some Israelis and disgraceful and dangerous to others. And both camps will be right.

But even without a deal, which is where we are now, a few lessons and insights need to be discussed from the Israeli point of view. Israel has allowed itself to engage the prisoner exchange question with Hamas on the basis of faulty strategic calculations.

First of all, with all due regard for the sacred value of repatriating captured Israelis, and soldiers in particular, a country in our situation simply cannot link major strategic decisions to the fate of a single soldier. For several years, the economic siege of the Gaza Strip was described by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and others as designed to bring about Shalit's release. Collective punishment was imposed on a million and a half Gazan civilians because of the fate of a single soldier. It didn't work, and Israel paid a heavy price in international condemnation.

Secondly, there are a number of good reasons for Israel to try to talk directly to Hamas. Economic conditions in Gaza are one. A ceasefire is another. And a prisoner exchange is a third. If indeed Shalit's fate is so important, why doesn't it justify at least an attempt to negotiate directly, rather than through German, Turkish or Egyptian good offices? By putting all bilateral issues on the table, trade-offs involving economic, political, security and prisoner issues might become a possibility. Of course it's very possible Hamas will refuse to talk; but it's worth a try. Nor should PLO sensitivities be a factor here; after all, the PLO too is talking to Hamas.

Third, from the outset of the Shalit affair, the Olmert government apparently adopted a misguided approach by inviting Hamas to submit its own list of prisoners to be exchanged--the outrageous list we continue to confront. Olmert should have offered to free a single Palestinian prisoner, say Marwan Barghouthi, in exchange for Shalit, and bargained from there. Is it too late to revert to this far healthier approach?

Then there are the basic conditions under which Israel incarcerates Palestinian and other terrorists that lead to the abduction of Israelis as bargaining chips. A Palestinian responsible for the deaths of, say, ten Israeli civilians is given ten life sentences and knows he or she will never be released unless there is a prisoner exchange. That terrorist's fate thus becomes an incentive to abduct Israelis and negotiate an exchange. In contrast, an Israeli like Ami Popper who in 1990 murdered seven Palestinian civilians in cold blood, began after 17 years in prison to get weekends off to visit with the family he was allowed to establish while in prison, and can expect to be released after around 25. (We know about the weekend vacations because in 2007, driving without a license, he caused a horrific traffic accident on one of these furloughs, killing his own wife and children, for which he received a six-month sentence.) Not to mention run-of-the-mill Israeli rapists and murderers who are released even sooner.

There is no justification for giving Israeli criminals and terrorists the hope of release while denying that hope to Palestinians. A change of attitude on Israel's part might render abductions like that of Shalit less likely. Instead, the Netanyahu government is currently threatening to worsen incarceration conditions for convicted terrorists.

One of the truly unfortunate aspects of the Shalit case is the circus-like publicity surrounding efforts to bring about Gilad's release. I don't envy the Shalit family's public ordeal, which at times seems like a reality show from hell. Whether, in this day and age, there is any alternative course to mass public displays of protest and pressure on the government, I don't know. But those displays merely strengthen the confidence of Hamas in demanding the release of so many hard-core terrorists in exchange for Gilad.

There is one thing we do know, or should know, on this fifth anniversary of Shalit's abduction. After an exchange for Gilad is made, if the government of Israel and Israeli society don't adopt a very different approach to Hamas, to the incarceration of terrorists and to bargaining with terrorist organizations, a repeat of the Shalit affair is inevitable.-Published 27/6/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Let the suffering end
 Ghassan Khatib
Palestinians, especially prisoners' families, are following with a great deal of interest (and sometimes jealousy) the relatively successful public relations and media campaign by family and friends to obtain the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

When hearing the sincere expressions and words of his family, especially his father and mother, many Palestinians can easily identify with them. They wonder, though, whether his mother understands that in the same instant, thousands of Palestinian mothers are having the same feelings.

What Shalit's family and friends might not be able to understand is that the Palestinian prisoners are in jail for a just cause. They are fighting for freedom and independence. Shalit, on the other hand, was part of an army and state involved in the ugly illegal occupation of another people's land. This difference, which may not be obvious to Israelis, is apparent to not only Palestinians but a growing majority of the world public.

There is more than one aspect to this issue. One is political, another is humanitarian. On a humanitarian level, we all would like to reach a time when suffering stops, beginning with an end to imprisonment of people on both sides of this conflict. Until then, everyone should work on improving the humanitarian condition of all these prisoners. Perhaps the best way to do that is to respect international conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war, which Israel has refused to do.

The other aspect is political. As long as this illegal occupation continues, there will unfortunately be continued suffering, especially by the weaker side of the conflict: Palestinians. The only way to end the suffering of people on both sides is to end the conflict, which would require a willingness from Israel to end its control over another people's lives and land.

The prisoner issue is one of the most significant aspects of the conflict simply because it has impacted, in a long-lasting and unforgettable manner, the majority of the Palestinian population. Over the last 44 years of occupation, thousands of Palestinians have passed through the Israeli prison system. This affects not only them, but their families, meaning that a majority of Palestinians have either been arrested themselves or had an immediate relative detained in Israeli prisons.

For those who don't know and might be deceived by the public relations statement of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he will stop allowing "benefits" for Palestinian prisoners, such as academic access, it is important to note that torture has been practiced regularly by Israeli interrogators. This practice has ended the life of many Palestinians and has been studied and condemned by international human rights organizations. The irony is that the Israeli system itself discussed the practice and decided to continue to allow "moderate physical and psychological pressure" during interrogation.

Ending this conflict would require a release of all prisoners. In the meantime, the priority is to start a process of gradually reducing the number of prisoners in Israeli jails, including a possible negotiated exchange that would release Shalit. This should also include the easing of conditions for Palestinian prisoners and their families, who are subject to humiliating treatment and sometimes deprived of visits.-Published 27/6/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Doing everything possible? I don't believe them
 Gershon Baskin
In September 2005, I received a phone call from one of my wife's cousins. Her brother Sasson Nuriel was missing and they thought he might have been kidnapped in Ramallah. Sasson worked with many Palestinians, buying and selling factory equipment. As a first generation Iraqi Jew born in Israel, he spoke fluent Arabic and had many Palestinian friends.

I was attending a conference abroad, so I asked my friend and colleague Hanna Siniora if he could go to Ramallah and ask around. Hanna did and found nothing. He met with senior officials in the Palestinian police who had no knowledge of an Israeli kidnapped in Ramallah. When I returned from abroad, I went to Ramallah, asked around and also came up without any information. Several days later Hamas issued a video of Sasson, his hands tied and his eyes covered, obviously after being badly tortured, reciting a text that was given to him calling for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. Several days after that, Sasson's body was found. I was too late; I could not help to save Sasson.

When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, Israel, realizing that a soldier was missing, quickly closed the escape routes out of Gaza. Israel launched a broad bombing campaign that included attacks against infrastructure in Gaza. I received two calls from people in Gaza who were concerned that the civilian population there would pay a very high price for the kidnapping and wanted it to end as soon as possible. One of them lived next door to a newly-appointed Hamas minister and the other was himself a member of Hamas and a professor of economics at the Gaza Islamic University.

After several days, the economics professor asked me if it would be possible to open a line of communication in order to begin a process of negotiating Shalit's release. Without hesitation, I said I would do whatever was possible. I was put in contact with the office of Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and since then I have tried, on the sidelines and behind the scenes, to assist in reaching a deal that would bring Gilad home to Israel and his family.

Aside from the promise that I made to myself when Sasson was murdered, that if I could ever help to prevent someone else from facing Sasson's fate I would, I have always believed in the covenant that exists between the people of Israel and the state of Israel: that no soldier would be left behind. This basic understanding enables us to maintain a people's army for our defense. In August, my middle son will begin his military service. I have enough problems on the political level with military service today in the occupied territories that if this covenant did not exist, as a parent I would have even more reservations.

The past five years of Gilad's captivity suggest that the understanding between the people and the state might no longer exist. Yes, it is true that the state should not pay "any price" for the release of a soldier from captivity. But this is not a situation of any price; the price tag is known. In the opinion of former heads of the Shin Bet (Internal Security Service) and other senior military experts, the price can be paid and we can deal with the consequences of the release of so many convicted terrorists, include Sasson's murderer.

I believe that the deal could have been completed years ago, and I have firsthand knowledge about the negotiations. I have been continually amazed that for the most part Israel's negotiating strategy has been passive: we have merely responded to Hamas demands. I proposed years ago to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to put an offer on the table "that they can't refuse".

I suggested offering 2,000 prisoners: about 750 administrative detainees that we have not brought to trial, about 700 prisoners from Gaza--regardless of what they had done, they would go back to Gaza--and another 550 women, minors, sick prisoners, and those who have already served more than 20 years. I suggested that the list of 2,000 names of Palestinian prisoners be published in the Palestinian media so the families of those prisoners would apply pressure on the Hamas leadership to accept the deal. Many other proposals were put forth by me and others and here we are five years since the kidnapping and there is still no sign of any real progress.

As a citizen of Israel, as a parent, as a person who served in the IDF
and educated officers in the College for the Training of Officers, I am angry, dismayed and deeply concerned that our leaders have failed for so long to bring home a soldier who is in captivity, so close to home. The public has been far too tolerant of this failure and far too gullible in believing that our leaders are in fact doing everything possible to bring him home. I don't believe them.-Published 27/6/2011 ©

Gershon Baskin is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Shalit.

We also have feelings
an interview with Qadura Fares
bitterlemons: Can you please describe the state of Palestinian prisoners today?

Fares: Right now, there are 5,500 prisoners distributed throughout 22 prisons and detention centers. Most of these prisons are located in Israel. One hundred and forty prisoners have been in jail more than 20 years. Forty prisoners have been in jail more than 25 years. Four have spent more than 30 years in jail.

About 700 prisoners are ill with various types of sicknesses, among them cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes, or were injured when they were outside and are now paralyzed or have some other type of handicap. There are 36 women in prison and about 300 children between the ages of 10 and 17.

Their conditions are very difficult, as, for example, no rights bodies are allowed to visit them in prison. Two months ago alone, a delegation from the Israeli lawyers union was allowed to carry out some visits and they reported that the living conditions were inhuman. This is an Israel organization [that said this].

Also, Israel uses torture in its interrogations. According to one study, as much as 95 percent of prisoners have been exposed to torture of one type or another. Numerous times, military units have entered the prison cell blocks and used tear gas, even though the gas canisters are marked with a warning that they should not be used in an enclosed area. Still Israel uses them against prisoners in their cells. At any time, special forces might enter the prison and use beatings [against the prisoners] in a surprise search.

Conditions in the prisons are very difficult.

bitterlemons: What is your reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's statements that he wants to crack down on the prisoners as punishment for Gilad Shalit's ongoing capture?

Fares: Netanyahu heads a government whose policies have failed. After the war on Gaza, the blockade on Gaza, numerous ongoing military operations in Gaza, and negotiations for many years to try to release Shalit, he has still not succeeded. So he has decided to punish the Palestinian prisoners, and through this pressure on the prisoners put pressure on the entire Palestinian people. This means that the government of Netanyahu is not acting like a state, but like a militia--it is indifferent to human rights and international decisions. This causes us to name Israel and all its representatives and bodies a racist country.

bitterlemons: When the parents of Gilad Shalit speak to the media, they do not relate to the issue of the Palestinian prisoners. Why is this? Is there a correlation?

Fares: Just as Shalit has a mother and father, these 5,500 prisoners have mothers and fathers, children and brothers and sisters who miss them and want them free. It is [these prisoners'] right to do their time in a legitimate manner, in line with international law, and with dignity. The international community must know that it is not only Gilad Shalit's loved ones who have feelings. We respect the feelings of the mother and father of Gilad Shalit, but we also have feelings for the families of the Palestinian prisoners.-Published 27/6/2011

Qadura Fares is head of the Palestinian Prisoner's Club, a semi-official agency that assists Palestinians in Israeli jails and their families.