Why Palestinian prisoner release upsets not just Israelis, but some Palestinians

The Monitor looks at which Palestinian prisoners are being released and why, and how that is playing with both publics.

Ammar Awad/REUTERS
Palestinians hang up a banner depicting their relative, Palestinian prisoner Jamil Nabi Annatsheh, ahead of his release from an Israeli prison, in the West Bank city of Hebron August 13, 2013.

Why are Palestinian prisoners being released before their terms are up?

Twenty years after the Oslo Accords were signed, raising Palestinian hopes that they would have a state of their own within five years, there is no Palestinian state and the number of Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has roughly doubled. Both sides blame the lack of a peace deal on the other’s intransigence.

Israel refused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s request for a freeze on settlement building, as well as a request that Israel formally acknowledge the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiating the borders of a future Palestinian state. The prisoner release is meant to be a gesture of good faith that Mr. Abbas can hold up as an Israeli concession, giving him the political cover to return to the negotiating table. 

The 104 prisoners who will be released were jailed prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords. 

Who is being released and when?

The prisoners will be released in four phases over the next nine months, as the peace talks progress. Israel has announced the names of the first 26 prisoners to be released, which is expected to take place early tomorrow.

Among them are eight that were “due to be released in the next three years and two in the next six months,” according to a statement by the Israeli prime minister’s office. Most of them were arrested for or charged with the murder of Israeli Jews, though a few of them were jailed as accessories to such murders. The Jerusalem Post compiled a list of the prisoners and the crimes they committed, and more information about their Israeli victims can be found at the Almagor terror victims’ association website

Are Palestinians satisfied with this step?

Many Palestinian families of the prisoners have expressed delight at the prospect of being reunited with their loved ones after more than two decades, and Abbas has ordered official receptions in the West Bank and Gaza for the released prisoners. However, there have been some grumblings from prisoners and prisoner advocates. Palestinians appear to have had little if any input on which prisoners would be released, and are upset that no Israeli Arabs or Jerusalem residents were among the first wave to be released.

In addition, 14 of the prisoners will be sent to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, a move that has been criticized for separating some prisoners from their families and hometowns.

Israel tightly restricts access between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which both limits intra-Palestinian visits via Israel and reduces the potential for recently released prisoners to attack Israeli citizens. 

In the last major prisoner swap, when more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, some were exiled to Gaza. But some make the best of it – this spring I profiled two former prisoners who set up a dessert shop that was so popular they had to open a second location a month after opening. 

How much opposition is there from Israelis?

Many of the relatives of those killed by Palestinians now in jail are upset about their release, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces stiff resistance from within his own cabinet. Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party said Sunday, “It’s not clear to me how releasing murderers can bring peace.”

Almagor, which advocates on behalf of families who have lost relatives in terrorist attacks, had petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice to block the prisoner release but the court today rejected the request though it acknowledged the families' pain. Many of those killed at the hands of these prisoners were simply going about their daily business, such as David Dadi, who was killed in his sleep by Palestinian workers in his housing complex.

Dadi’s siblings reflect the divide in Israeli society over the prisoner release, with his sister angrily opposing it and his brother welcoming it – albeit cautiously – as a potential step toward peace.

 “A young man [David] lost his life, and another man has spent the past 20 years in prison and hasn’t been able to start a family,” Rehamim Dadi told the Jerusalem Post, characterizing the past two decades as a loss for both sides. “Does he deserve it? Yes, but what has it done for us or for them? Nothing,” he said.

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