A week ago, in the middle of the night, Israel released 26 of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners it had agreed to free in exchange for the Palestinian leadership returning to negotiations. The other 78 prisoners will have to wait and may never see the light of day. As part of the deal, Israel gets to pick and choose who goes home, when, and where to. It has decided to break the group of old timers into four sub-groups and with each successful meeting another handful of them get to go home. If negotiations fall apart, Israel is no longer required to honor its commitment and those left behind will be out of luck until the next time the “peace talks” farce is repeated.
Much has been made of the significance of the release of these 26 long-serving inmates. It is being framed as a huge sacrifice on Israel’s part and a victory for the Palestinians. This despite the fact that Israel continues to spit in the face of John Kerry and the peace process by announcing new illegal settlement building daily. In reality, the only Palestinians who give a hoot about the paltry 26 prisoners freed are their immediate families—and even they acknowledge that they are being used by the negotiators. The other 7 million Palestinians are too busy trying to survive the constant Israeli incursions, house demolitions, and lack of basic human rights to care about Netanyahu’s PR move.
I chatted with a gaggle of 20- to 80-year-olds in the bars of Ramallah about the significance of the freeing of some of the pre-Oslo prisoners. They voiced disgust at the fact that Israel had complete control over the prisoner release and that Abbas and company had not objected to Israel’s insistence on releasing the prisoners in waves rather than all at once. They also pointed out that for every prisoner released, Israel had already scooped up a handful of fresh meat to take their place and that most of those released were going back to Gaza. Israel purposely chose to release a large number of the convicts from Gaza because it knows that living there is just like being in prison anyway.
The Israeli families who claimed to be directly affected by the freed prisoners’ actions seemed to be the only folks who really cared about the move to send these notorious men home. They came out on the night of the release to block the bus route. Abbas, meanwhile, partied like a rock star with the freed Palestinians who were sent home to the West Bank and didn’t realize how foolish he looked in comparison to when Hamas scored 1000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
Then there are the mothers and fathers of the other 5000 prisoners who did not come home. One of those moms is my husband’s grandmother, Watfa. Watfa’s son Adnan has been in jail for 22 years and his name is on the list of prisoners set to be released over the next 9 months. As a teen he committed the heinous crime of stabbing two young Israelis. His nephew had been shot three times in the chest by the army and apparently he lost his mind. He hit the streets seeking revenge. An Israeli woman saved his life when she threw her body on top of him as an angry crowd attempted to beat him to death. His victims survived and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Watfa sat up until 1:30 a.m. the night the names were released to see if her child was one of the chosen. He was not.
While everyone else in her family fell apart when they found out their prisoner was not coming home, Watfa remained unfazed. This was not the first time she had been promised her son would be released and she didn’t buy into it this time either. As a mother, she swears she knew his name would not be on the list. Her neighbor Amoona’s maternal instincts were not as sharp. Amoona believed with all her heart her son Issa was coming home. She painted the house, bought new furniture, and was visited by journalists from far and wide. When Watfa saw Amoona the next day, she teased her that yet again she’d been had and wondered why Amoona kept falling for the same gag. Watfa then warned Amoona that the next time America set up a liaison between Palestine and Israel, the reporters were bound to show up again. Amoona responded, “If they do, I will slap them on their heads.” Both women now adamantly believe the negotiations will falter and their sons will serve out the rest of their terms. Even the families of the freed prisoners are unimpressed. They have no faith that anything will come of the negotiations and live in fear of their sons being rearrested, just like Samir Issawi was after the Shalit deal.
It is also important to remember whom Israel chose to free. These are not women, children, or prisoners of conscience. They are not your average Palestinians serving time for rock throwing or because an acquaintance who could no longer handle the torture volunteered their name as a scapegoat. These are not the Palestinians being held without charges or as political prisoners for nonviolent resistance. Israel chose these prisoners specifically knowing that after over two decades of rotting in jail, these men no longer pose a threat, and that the move to free them could be used to Israel’s advantage. As the families cheer the homecoming of their loved ones, Israel can use those images to reinforce the myth that Palestinians are terrorist-loving savages. Criminal or not, these mothers and fathers want their children home and are happy that they got to hug them one more time before they died. Others who come to cheer see little difference between Palestinian armed resistance and an Israeli sniper shooting an unarmed 13-year-old through the heart. Both are murderers and both will find a couple hundred people to give them a hero’s welcome, regardless. Had Israel chosen to release the children it holds, that image would be strikingly different and much harder to spin. Israel chose these men for a reason. Its leaders are masters at PR and the Palestinian leadership is always willing to be their hype man.
The lack of enthusiasm about the prisoner deal extends far beyond the Ramallah bubble. I have not found a single soul in any village, city, or camp I have visited on this trip who thinks anything will come of the Kerry-helmed peace talks. The only thing they seem certain about is that Israel will continue to build settlements and take Palestinian land, one acre at a time, until there is nothing left to house the figment of a Palestinian state the PLO is eternally calling for. Those not resigned to living on reservations like Native Americans live in fear that they will be the next family to lose their home—or, even worse, a family member—to the endless Israeli aggression. Freeing 26 prisoners out of 5000 means nothing compared to the Israeli Housing Minister announcing the construction of 1200 new religiously segregated housing units. And everyone involved in the negotiations, including President Obama, knows it.