No issue symbolizes better the Palestinian struggle for freedom against a foreign occupation and a colonial rule than the prisoners. They are those who have sacrificed their freedom to achieve the freedom of their people. And they are the indicator of both the intentions of the Occupying power to end its occupation or to entrench it, and of the international community’s will to uphold universal values or relinquish them.
No issue embodies more the confrontation between two diametrically opposed perspectives to analyse this conflict: While Israel claims it is related to security, in order to legitimise its occupation, it is clear that nothing can justify the persistence of this occupation which nourishes insecurity in the region. Freedom of the prisoners, leading to the freedom of the Palestinian people, will bring peace and security.
Security for the occupation vs. Freedom and peace
For very long, Israel was able to portray the Palestinian prisoners’ issue as a security issue to justify its violations and avoid any form of international involvement.
This success meant two things:
- Israel could arrest any Palestinian…
…and it did. Since 1967, over 800 000 Palestinians have experienced detention including 10 000 women, a clear manifestation of Israel’s use of imprisonment as a means to break the will of an entire nation seeking freedom. These arrests have included children (8 000 since the year 2000), some younger than 10 years old, human rights defenders notably demonstrating against the wall and the settlements both illegal under international law, and even Members of Parliament. At one point, over 1/3 of the Palestinian Legislative Council was behind bars. There are today some 5000 prisoners in Israeli jails, including 180 children, 135 administrative detainees, 15 women and 12 Members of Parliament. Israel, the occupying power, has criminalised all forms of civic and political engagement. The Israeli military courts have a conviction rate of over 99%! At the same time, it has granted almost total impunity to its soldiers and settlers.
- Israel can deprive the prisoners from their most basic rights
Israel completely disregards the rights provided by international human rights and international humanitarian law instruments. These violations take place during arrest, interrogation, detention, trial and imprisonment. It is impossible to give an exhaustive list of these violations but the most striking examples include: administrative detention, whereby the defendant is imprisoned without charge or trial for six months, renewable indefinitely, which is, in fact, arbitrary detention; the use of torture and ill treatment (since 1967, 72 prisoners have died as a result of torture); medical neglect (since 1967, 52 prisoners have died as a result of medical neglect); the mass arrest of children; the transfer of prisoners outside of the Occupied Territory; the depravation of, or severe restrictions on, visitation rights; and the failure to ensure due process and a fair trial. This complete disregard for international human rights law and international humanitarian law stands as proof that Israeli courts are instruments to sustain occupation, not to fulfil justice.
A central issue
For a long time, Palestinian prisoners have been treated as a subsidiary issue that would be solved once the conflict was over. This completely disregards what has proven right in so many conflicts around the world: prisoners, once released, can play a critical role in helping to achieve freedom, reconciliation and peace. With over 800 000 Palestinians having experienced detention, prisoners are a critical issue that affects virtually every Palestinian family. 5000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons today.
A unifying issue
If there is one subject that unifies all Palestinians, wherever they are, beyond political divides, it is the prisoners. The leaders in prison have also played a key role in supporting the reconciliation efforts, including through the elaboration of the prisoners’ document, and the ongoing call upon their political parties to end the division.
Releasing all political prisoners is a prerequisite for peace
As demonstrated by other conflicts around the world, the release of political prisoners is instrumental to achieving peace. In many cases, including the South African case, such release constituted a prerequisite to the launch of formal negotiations. In the Palestinian case, however, despite the freeing of thousands of prisoners, the signing of the Oslo agreements did not lead to the release of all prisoners. Several Palestinian prisoners hold now world records for the longest periods of political imprisonment, including Karim Younes who is still in prison, and who spent 32 years in Israeli jails. 20 years after the conclusion of the Oslo peace agreements, this long overdue release of pre-Oslo prisoners is finally taking place revealing an inherent failure of the peace process: its inability to secure freedom for the occupied people. At the same time, 5000 prisoners continue to await their freedom while Israel pursues its daily campaigns of arrest.