Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are following the truce in Gaza with great interest and hope. This is due primarily to their wish to help stop the destruction and genocide against their fellow Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They feel powerless to get humanitarian aid and medicine into the besieged territory, and the hope is that the truce turns into a long and sustained ceasefire.
Despite its importance, there are other dimensions to the truce that are equally important. The truce represents a halt, even if only temporary, of the occupation army achieving what it wants by force, namely the destruction of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement; the destruction of the Gaza Strip; and the recovery of Israeli captives held by Hamas.
There were more than 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons before 7 October. A further 3,300 have been detained since then, including 170 since the truce came into force. Six have been killed in prison by the brutal Israeli prison system since 7 October. Around 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are serving life sentences and hundreds have spent decades behind bars. The Palestinian Authority has been unable to free them through political agreements and negotiations, and they are not expected to be released without a prisoner exchange deal.
Palestinians believe that women and children held by Israel who are from the West Bank and Jerusalem and were freed under the current exchange deal are evidence of the unity of the Palestinian people and their struggle against the occupation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If the reports are true about the possibility of including for the first time Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, this will carry a symbolism no less important than the above.
There are mixed feelings of joy at the liberation of our women and children, and extreme sadness at the blood price that Palestinians, specifically the people of Gaza, are paying for their freedom. These mixed emotions are with us in the West Bank every night as we await the release of a new batch of detainees. We all know that we want to defy the ban imposed by Israel on any celebrations of their release. The desire to challenge the occupation thus joins the other emotions.
The issue of prisoners held by Israel is a central and emotional issue for the Palestinians; it is an issue in every Palestinian home, because there is hardly any Palestinian family without one or more of its members having tasted the bitterness of captivity and the brutality of arrest. The release of prisoners has great popular support, and this is understood by Hamas as it strives to make freedom a reality. The people of the West Bank view with pride the ability of the resistance not only to thwart Israel’s deterrence policy, but also to impose conditions in exchange for a truce. This is seen as a victory, even if small and temporary, in exchange for the massive destruction and killing in the Gaza Strip. It confirms the unity of the fate of Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which the Israeli occupation has been trying to tear apart for decades.
Palestinians and the rest of the world can see evidence of the humane treatment provided by the resistance in Gaza to the Israeli prisoners, and compare it with the evidence of Israeli oppression, beatings and torture meted out to Palestinians held by the apartheid state. Freed Palestinians tell of harassment and deprivation of basic rights alongside the beating of Palestinian prisoners, including children and women.
Many are surprised to learn that Israel imprisons Palestinian children. I was one of those minors detained by Israel. In 1991, I was arrested and tortured by the Israeli security services and interrogated in prison in very bad conditions. Children and women are often held for many years and in many cases without charges or trial and in difficult conditions. It is only after Israelis have been captured that the world has started to talk about them.
We Palestinians in the West Bank understand, of course, that the temporary truce will not lead to an end to the killing and arrest of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel has killed about 20 Palestinians during the truce alone, and arrested more than 170 in the areas supposedly under the security responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. The PA has peace agreements and security coordination with Israel that are supposed to stop such daily killings. The number arrested in the West Bank, by the way, almost matches the number of Palestinians freed so far under the truce deal.
Israel works to undermine the PA and any ambitions for Palestinian unity between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The authority has not succeeded in negotiations to stop settlement activity and has been unable, despite its international connections, to prevent the ongoing killing of Palestinians on a daily basis. For ten years, the PA has not been able to free any Palestinian prisoner through negotiations with Israel, even though President Mahmoud Abbas stated more than once his firm position that, “There will be no peace as long as there is a single prisoner behind bars.”
The last prisoner exchange took place in 2011 in the so-called Gilad Shalit deal, which stipulated the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing the captured Israeli soldier. A large number of them included those whom Israel had refused to release as a gesture of good faith with the PA before, on the pretext that they all had “blood on their hands”.
Intentionally or not, the message that Israel sends to the Palestinians is that it does not give anything away for free, or as a “gesture of good faith”. It is clear that the only way to liberate Palestinian prisoners is solely through exchange deals between the resistance and the occupation state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.