Palestinians of all political persuasions welcomed the release of 26 prisoners last night. They are the first of 104 pre-Oslo life prisoners due to be released over the next nine months as long as Israel is satisfied with the progress of its negotiations with the PLO/PA. Incredibly, these 104 prisoners now slated to be freed should have been released 20 years ago according to the terms of the Oslo Accords, so it is not such a big concession for Israel to be releasing them now.
Despite the overwhelming euphoria that marked the occasion, that joy remains incomplete because there are still an estimated 4,800 other Palestinians behind bars in Israel. An additional 1,267 Palestinians are held in Israel Prison Service facilities for being in Israel illegally. However, Palestinian prisoners are not just statistics. Israel regards criminal prisoners and political detainees alike; they are all criminals in its eyes. With a stronger Palestinian leadership capable of exercising real leverage at the negotiating table, there would be cause to be hopeful about this release. Sadly, this is not the case; the PA's negotiators are dependent on their misplaced trust in American "impartiality" and Israeli "goodwill". Decades of concessions have got the Palestinians nowhere.
While the Israelis continue to hold thousands of Palestinians in detention because they are "terrorists" with "blood on their hands", not a single Israeli is held in a Palestinian jail despite the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by Israelis; presumably Israeli hands are regarded as clean.
The issue of the Palestinian prisoners is one that evokes an unquestioned national consensus. It affects every strata of society. Whether they were imprisoned before Oslo or after, they have all suffered. Fuad Al-Khouffash, the head of the Ahrar Center for Detainees' Studies and Human Rights based in Nablus, says that there are about 500 prisoners serving life sentences.
Over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained and imprisoned since the beginning of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967. This represents almost 20 per cent of the total Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
When asked to explain this abnormally high incidence of incarceration, Palestinians insist that they were only defending their land and freedom. Earlier this month, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni confirmed the importance of land in the equation when she told Israeli Radio that she prefers a prisoner release deal rather than the possibility of resuming peace talks based on the June 1967 borders. Freeing a few prisoners, it appears, is much easier than withdrawing from the occupied and colonised territories.
To the same degree, land is also the overarching issue for the Palestinians. While they all value the release of their loved ones from Israeli prisons, it must not be at any price. If it means giving up their land they would much rather remain behind bars. Nazareth-born Karim Younis, who has been on a life-sentence since 1983, is regarded by many prisoners as their dean. He wrote in a letter from Hadrim Prison this week: "We never thought in our wildest dreams or nightmares that the issue of the pre-Oslo prisoners would be turned into a blackmail card in the hands of the Israelis and a sword on the necks of the Palestinian negotiators. We reject that categorically and we prefer to remain in the graves of the living rather than be used as an instrument in the hands of our enemy to blackmail our leaders."
Contrary to the recommendation of the internal intelligence agency Shabak, Israel's ministerial council responsible for identifying those to be released refused to free 40 prisoners described as posing no threat to Israel's security. They were substituted by others identified by the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The Israelis conceded this point allegedly to strengthen Abbas's domestic position.
Every one of the prisoners has a history and a record of struggle. They are not mere numbers. Yet the new releases ignore these truths and condition their freedom on two grounds; that they do not pose a threat to the Israeli establishment and the degree to which their release will strengthen the hand of Mahmoud Abbas among his people. With Israeli settlement activity in accelerated mode the PA has little to justify its decision to return to the negotiating table. Apart from Abbas's Fatah movement all of the other Palestinian political groups oppose the resumption of talks while Israel's conquest and colonial-settlement of land continues.
After the well-deserved celebrations for the freed prisoners are over, Palestinians will realise that there is a still a heavy price to be paid. It is not just the resumption of negotiations with the Israelis but rather the continued occupation and settlement expansion on their land s well as the Judaisation of Jerusalem. Indeed, the mere fact that the negotiators are meeting in occupied Jerusalem is in itself recognition of Israel's claim to the city.
With American mediation, the most the Palestinians can reasonably hope for is to emerge with a promise of financial support on condition that they continue to protect Israel's colony-settlements in the West Bank. After all the sacrifices the prisoners have made over the years the best tribute the Palestinian Authority can make in their honour and for the sake of their national status is to withdraw from the negotiations. Abbas knows that they are leading to nowhere but humiliation.