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From the September 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 9)

Israeli Press Review

Prisoner Tug-of-War

Elisa Ben Rafael, World Press Review correspondent, Jerusalem

A Palestinian prisoner released on Aug. 6 returns to a tearful welcome from his family.
A Palestinian prisoner released from an Israeli prison on Aug. 6 is greeted with a tearful welcome from his family (Photo: Jamal Aururi/AFP-Getty Images).
Since the beginning of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at the end of  June, and particularly after the July 2 meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at which four joint working committees were established to deal with the principal issues—security, prisoner release, incitement (sedition), and trade—the question of the release of Israeli-held Palestinian security prisoners has generated the greatest amount of attention in the Israeli press.

The task of carrying out the promise to release imprisoned Palestinians is far from simple, according to Amos Harel and Baruch Kra, writing in Ha’aretz (July 7). Even the question of the number of security prisoners held in Israeli facilities has generated a controversy.

In their investigative report—using figures made public after the July 3 release of 53 Palestinians, including Suleiman Abu Mutalek, a senior officer in the Gaza Preventive Security Service, who was suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks—Harel and Kra said that as of July 6, “There were 6,043 male and female prisoners being held in facilities operated by the Prison Service (2,591 prisoners) and the Israeli Defense Forces (3,452 prisoners).”

This figure excludes nearly 200 people held at interrogation facilities operated by the Shin Bet security service. Therefore, according to Ha’aretz, the total is about 6,200. The final figure for convicted murderers has not been released.
The Israeli Cabinet took up the issue of prisoner release in a heated meeting on July 6. The first vote—a tie—was an embarrassment for Sharon, who forced a revote in which 13 ministers voted in favor and 9 against.

In a July 7 editorial, Yediot Aharonot said of the tumultuous session, “The vote, which almost ended in an international disgrace, shows that Sharon lacks neither sensitivity nor responsibility, but fully responsible coalition partners.” In a Ha’aretz analysis (July 7), Yossi Verter said: “If the prime minister truly wants to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, he will have to consider a change in the coalition.”

After the Cabinet session, Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein advised the government to give at least 48 hours’ advance warning about its plans to release specific prisoners, so that anyone opposing their release could petition the Supreme Court, sitting in its capacity as the High Court of Justice, to bar the release of a particular person. (The High Court of Justice has never ruled against a government decision to release prisoners as part of political negotiations.) 

Unlike other Israeli media, Hatzofeh has taken a consistently negative stance in its reporting and in its commentary on the road-map negotiations and on the Israeli government’s concessions. Its July 8 editorial reminded readers that “while [Palestinian security chief] Muhammad Dahlan continues pressing Israel to hasten the release of thousands of Palestinian terrorists, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are stepping up the production of Kassam rockets and other weapons.”

The editors continued, “The settlement with the Palestinians obligates the Palestinian Authority to prove its desire for a settlement with Israel not only in words, but in deeds,” and declared, “We want to believe that Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre] and Dahlan, instead of running after Israel to release terrorists, will begin to fulfill their responsibilities to bring about a change in the PA’s tone, and that from now on, Israel will no longer be presented as an enemy that must be destroyed but as a neighbor; thus relations between Israel and the PA will be tested.”

On July 9, Hatzofeh’s editors went a step further, saying: “It is sad to hear Justice Minister Joseph Lapid pushing the road map, when the Palestinian Authority prime minister is a deplorable Holocaust-denier.”

The editors added, “There is no logic in releasing Palestinian prisoners when no tangible step against terror has been taken up until now…and when the most important issues—such as the right of [Palestinian] return, Jerusalem, and final borders—remain unresolved.”

“The prime minister wants to make gestures to U.S. President Bush,” the editorial observed, but advised Sharon, “When these gestures end in the spilling of Jewish blood, they should be dispensed with.”

At press time, the cease-fire has held, despite some violations in July, including killings of Israelis. And the public has continued to support Sharon’s participation in the process.

A July 8 editorial in Yediot expressed considerable frustration with Sharon’s strategy, observing, “The prisoner issue is especially sensitive for Abu Mazen....If Israel has a genuine interest in helping him, instead of trumpeting seeming victories, instead of inviting him to the Knesset, it should carry out tangible steps that will enable him to be seen as someone who brings results.”

Yet on July 10, Yediot’s editors wrote a strongly worded editorial on the importance of process: “Only after the illusion of Camp David was finally shattered, during 1,000 days of fire, blood, terror, and eliminations—has a new and realistic diplomatic dialogue finally been opened between these two stiff-necked peoples.”

Yossi Verter took note of the role of public opinion in the negotiations in Ha’aretz (July 7): “The more [Sharon] is strengthened by the public, the less likely that anyone from his party will challenge him. The minute that equation stops working, the whole thing could collapse on top of him.”

This complicated balancing act may well explain Sharon’s slowness in moving toward the release of more Palestinians.

At this writing, despite his July 2 promise to Abbas to announce additional releases by July 9 and the fact that negotiations between Israel and the PA have continued, including a July 10 meeting between Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the PA’s Dahlan, no other prisoners have been freed. 

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