August 19, 2013
AS A measure of the seriousness of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Palestinian prisoners released on the eve of talks, say pessimists, is a gloomy barometer. When the two sides sat down to negotiate two decades ago, after signing the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel freed 2,000 Palestinians in a single year. For the next couple of years it released, on average, around 1,000 a year. In later years that number slumped to a few hundred. Now, to coincide with the fresh round of talks that started in Jerusalem on August 14th, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has freed just 26.
Even this has provoked an outcry in Israel. Many of the 26 were convicted of crimes of violence, including murder, against Israeli civilians. Relations of the victims have carried black banners, accusing Mr Netanyahu of truckling to terrorists.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who is leading negotiations for his side, has had an even rougher time trying to persuade his people that the Israelis earnestly seek a peace deal. Since July 19th, when America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that peace talks would restart, Israel—say human-rights campaigners—has detained eight times as many Palestinians as it has just released.
Indeed, many Palestinians deride Mr Abbas for winning freedom for so tiny a share of the 5,071 Palestinians said to be behind bars for politically motivated acts of violence or subversion. All but one of the first 26 to be let out were convicted in or before 1994. If the talks last long enough, a further 78 Palestinians are due to be freed in batches in the coming months.
Mr Abbas’s Palestinian critics say his non-violent policy is plainly less effective than that of Hamas, the Islamist faction that runs the Gaza Strip. In 2011 Hamas got Mr Netanyahu to release more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by Hamas and held for five years.
Few issues stir Palestinian emotions as fiercely as the fate of prisoners. Almost every Palestinian has a relative in jail—or has been there himself. Human-rights groups estimate that 750,000 Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since the West Bank and Gaza were conquered in 1967. Some 2,300 Palestinians were detained in the first six months of this year alone. Whereas Israelis generally dub them terrorists, Palestinians call them asra, or prisoners of war, and devote large chunks of their public broadcasts and budget to supporting them and their families. Some have been sentenced for complicity in the 100-plus suicide-bombings which shook Israel during the intifada (uprising) that fizzled out in 2005. But many of those that languish in 17 special Israeli jails have no such blood on their hands.
They include 14 members of the Palestinian parliament and hundreds of non-violent protesters who have tried in vain to stop Israel’s army and settlers from acquiring their land. The military laws that Israel applies in the occupied territories make anyone taking part in anti-Israeli demonstrations liable to be arrested. Under Military Order 1651, throwing stones at people or property can carry a ten-year jail sentence. Of those Palestinians in prison, 193 are minors, nearly all brought to court in leg shackles and handcuffs.
But Palestinians know their governments often treat political opponents little better. Since the Palestinian territories were split in June 2007 between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Mr Abbas’s West Bank, both sides have habitually rounded up each other’s activists. Scores languish in Palestinian jails; some have been tortured.
Hamas’s government has executed at least 16 for crimes including collaboration with Israel, and says it will hang two more publicly within days as “a lesson”. Under Israeli law people can be executed only for treason, genocide and “crimes against the Jewish people”. No one has been sentenced to death in an Israeli court since the execution in 1962 of Adolf Eichmann, an organiser of the Holocaust.
Conviction rates for Palestinians in Israel’s military courts, where most politically motivated cases are heard, exceed 99%. So many are processed every day that there is scant time to delve into detail, let alone study cases in advance. Military judges, working in makeshift courts, rely on the testimony of soldiers to secure convictions, but when they fail to turn up, the detainees are often sent back to prison.
What Palestinians want as a sign of good intent, is the release of thousands, not scores, of their compatriots. The Israelis hint that they will see how the talks proceed—and let more prisoners trickle out if things go well.