Israel’s release of ordinary criminal prisoners instead of security prisoners in the wake of the Wye Agreement has provoked anger among Palestinians. Those members of the Palestinian negotiating team charged with overseeing the prisoner release issue have blamed it on the Israeli government.
Criticism of the Palestinian Leadership
After it became clear that the majority of prisoners released by Israel were common criminals, recently released security prisoners aligned themselves with the families of their still incarcerated comrades in accusing the Palestinian delegation of selling them out during the negotiations. They alleged that the negotiators favored issues of Palestinian sovereignty, over unequivocal demands to release the remaining prisoners. The Palestinian police had to forcibly disperse a demonstration at the residence of Arafat’s deputy Abu Mazen, where participants chanted: “shame on the PA, they sold the prisoners out in return for the airport.”1 Head of the Israeli Desk in the PA, Sufyan Abu Zayda, stated: “the prisoners are the major issue, [they come] before the airport, the harbor, or the withdrawal.” 2
The criticism of the Palestinian leadership was not unfounded. The prisoners’ cause was not at the top of the agenda of their negotiating team in Wye. Muhammad Dahlan, one of the Palestinian negotiators, made it clear: “our priorities were clear: the land comes first, and the prisoners come second.”3
A coalition composed of relatives of Israeli-held security prisoners, former security prisoners and active public lobbies quickly formed. They all pointed to the PA as the culprit. “We are struggling now,” said recently-released Wajih Al-Rajub “so that the prisoners’ cause can be brought to the top of the agenda and to the fore of the Palestinian negotiators’ minds – those who have forgotten us at the Taba Agreement, at Washington, Cairo and recently at Wye Plantation.”4 Similar sentiments were expressed in a letter smuggled out of an Israeli prison, where prisoners complained that they had been “neglected by the Palestinian delegation, which failed to pursue their cause vigorously at the negotiating table.” 5
Some PLC members also admonished the Palestinian negotiating team. Qadura Fares, a PLC member for Fatah, stated that if security prisoners were not released, the struggle would go on by every means possible.6 Another Fatah member of the PLC, Jamal Al-Shati, saw the Wye Agreement and the treatment of the prisoners’ predicament as “a moral disintegration of national Palestinian decision making.” Al-Shati described Wye as “the burial [ceremony] for the Oslo Accord that was executed by the Hebron Accord.”7
Official Palestinian Response to Criticism
In the face of mounting criticism, the Palestinian negotiators went on the defensive. They stressed the priority of the prisoners’ cause in their negotiation strategy. Since November, the PA termed security prisoners “P.O.Ws,”8 while erasing the difference between those who had been incarcerated prior to the Oslo Accords to those who were incarcerated after it.
Senior Palestinian officials have, a number of times, defined these prisoners as soldiers in the service of the Palestinian armed resistance, who were captured by Israel and whose release is the PA’s responsibility.
Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saib ‘Arekat addressed this issue, quoting what Arafat had told Netanyahu and Clinton in Wye: “I personally Yaser Arafat – have given verbal orders to these youths to carry out their [attacks]. [It is inconceivable] that I sit next to you and shake your hands, while letting these [youths] languish in jail…”9
The PA rejected the distinction Israel drew between prisoners with ‘blood on their hands’ and others. From its standpoint, all the Palestinian prisoners are freedom fighters. Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs Hisham ‘Abd Al-Razeq was adamant: “During [our] struggle, we were not strolling around, we were at war. In this war there were many more Palestinian casualties than Israeli ones. Therefore, we do not accept this equation. It is inconceivable that we agree to our prisoners remaining in jails and being tortured, while we – the leadership of the Palestinian people and Brother ‘Abu ‘Ammar [Arafat] – sit next to the Israelis and negotiate with them. Any claim of Palestinians having murdered is racist and unacceptable… The problem of Palestinians who committed killings must be resolved. We are their leadership, so we are responsible for those acts…”10
The Fatah official communiqu‚, Our Position, also rejects the distinction between prisoners with ‘blood on their hands’ and other prisoners, as well as the distinction drawn between Fatah and Hamas prisoners. In its bi-weekly edition, Our Position, addresses the prisoners ‘of the various factions’ stating: “you are a lung without which oxygen will not circulate in the blood of the revolution, the PA, and the PLO. You are the chandelier which shines over thick darkness… we tell each and every one of those who scented their hands with devotion [to the national cause]… whose hands Zionists and racists attempt to accuse of being caked with blood – you are the pride of the revolution…”11
The PA’s Efforts to Divert Public Anger Toward Israel
The PA has launched a media campaign in an attempt to deflect Palestinian public anger toward Israel. In a PLC session, Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saib Arekat has called upon the council neither to embrace a policy of ‘self-flagellation’ nor put the blame for Israel’s conduct on the Palestinian delegation.”12
The Fatah official communiqu‚, Our Position, defended the Palestinian negotiating team by invoking age-old Islamic terminology to accuse Israel of treachery that is ‘characteristic of all Jews’ by saying: “The Palestinian negotiating team has faced ill intentions on the part of the Israelis ever since the times of Rabin and Peres and Chief Israeli negotiators Uri Savir and Yoel Singer who demonstrate [exactly] what Allah ascribed [to Jews]: ‘whenever they make a pact, one of their factions will violate it….'” Later, Our Position, denounces the insults cast at members of the Palestinian delegation by relatives of the still incarcerated prisoners. It states that there is no alternative for Palestinians other than “channeling their anger towards the deceitful party [i.e.Israel]. An Intifada inside and outside of the jails should be launched against it.” It was further stated, on behalf of Fatah, the PA, and the PLO: “…we have reached the level of full preparedness to confront Netanyahu’s government and the gangs of Zionist extremists…”13
Following mounting public criticism, senior Palestinian officials – led by Minister Hisham ‘Abd Al-Razeq – have begun making covert threats at Israel, implying that if it did not meet their demands, Palestinians would resort to violence. ‘Abd Al-Razeq alluded to 1985 when “two [Israeli] soldiers were exchanged for 1,200 Arab and Palestinian prisoners, of whom more than 80% had killed Israelis… “14 The 1985 prisoners exchange resulted from the kidnapping of IDF soldiers in Lebanon. Minister ‘Abd Al-Razeq warned of a repeat of this scenario: “The [refusal] to release [our] prisoners is a serious Israeli message to our people. [It signals that] the peace process fails to liberate [our] sons who are in Israeli prisons, as opposed to the 1983 and 1985 [prisoners] exchange which proved successful in doing so.”15 ‘Abd Al-Razeq made a similar statement in an interview with the Hamas weekly: “Israel’s refusal to release security prisoners sends a message to the Palestinian people that prisoners can only be released through violence.”16 In another interview – this time with PA Television – ‘Abd Al-Razeq again made a reference to the 1983 and 1985 prisoners exchange, and added that last year fundamentalist leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, and another 60 Palestinians were released in exchange for two Mossad agents who were arrested in Jordan.17
‘Abd Al-Razeq’s stance was supported by Sufyan Abu Zayda, head of the Israel desk in the PA, who said: “When prisoners lose hope, and their families and friends lose hope that their sons may be released in the wake of the peace process – this means that they are being told explicitly that [they must] find other ways of releasing their brethren from prison.”18 On another occasion Abu Zayda said, “there are other ways of releasing the prisoners, as was the case in 1985.”19 Kamal Al-Shurafi, Chairman of the Human Rights Supervision Committee in the PLC, declared that Israel would pay dearly for its obstinacy regarding the issue of prisoners soon enough.20
‘Abd Al-Razeq and Abu Zaida’s threats were echoed by the Op-Ed pages of the Palestinian press. Political commentator Ashraf Al-‘Ajrami was the boldest of all. He wrote that the principle of reciprocity applied to every issue, and so the Palestinians must take Israeli hostages in order to release their comrades who are still incarcerated by Israel. Al-‘Ajrami added: “…[the Palestinians] will seek other solutions. They will once again instigate the prisoners’ exchange and release of detainees from Ansar [Israeli detention center] in 1983 and the ‘Galilee Operation’ of 1985. Back then, the Israeli government did not speak of ‘murderers’ or [people] with ‘blood-caked’ hands, but was forced to release everyone whose release had been called for… the PA will not be able to prevent Palestinian youths from… carrying out suicide bombings as long as the prevalent circumstances encourage [such acts]… a comprehensive review of the peace process, as well as the issue of prisoners, must be taken. Let us use every trump that is in our hands to force the Israelis into complying with the Agreement in all its clauses.”21
The issue of prisoners’ release has exposed a deep-seated moral debate among the Palestinians. While the leadership views the “liberation” of lands and other issues of sovereignty as the Palestinian’s first priority, the families of the prisoners, PLC members, grass-roots PA activists, as well as well as the general Palestinian public, consider the release of prisoners to be the most important issue. They view the PA leadership’s negotiating strategy and priorities as a “moral disintegration.” The tactics used by the Palestinian leadership to evade the public’s ire are worrisome. Blaming the opposite side’s intransigence is a common public relations “spin” on negotiations. But the PA’s statement that the only way to overcome this intransigence is through the use of force is a direct incitement to violence and is beyond “spin.” Their readiness to use violent means to achieve their ends demonstrates a non-committal approach to peaceful negotiations as pledged by Arafat in the Wye Memorandum ceremony and in the Oslo Accords.
1 Al-Risala, November 11, 1998.
2 Al-Quds, December 1, 1998.
3 PA Television, December 6, 1998.
4 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 25, 1998.
5 Al-Ayyam, November 24, 1998.
6 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 2, 1998.
7 Al-Ayyam, November 25, 1998.
8 This has been promulgated in a recent PLC communiqu‚- Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 26, 1998.
9 PA Television, October 30, 1998. See also Abu Mazen’s similar statement, “They fought under our orders and our oversight… are they [to be] hostages for the Israelis,” in Al-Quds, November 11, 1998.
10 PA Television, October 30, 1998.
11 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 2, 1998.
12 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 26, 1998.
13 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, December 2, 1998.
14 PA Television, October 30, 1998.
15 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 23, 1998.
16 Al-Risala, November 26, 1998.
17 PA Television, December 2, 1998.
18 PA Television, November 23, 1998.
19 Al-Istiqlal, November 27, 1998.
20 Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 30, 1998.
21 Al-Ayyam, November 25, 1998; See also a statement by Dr. Kamal Al-Astal: “… leaving prisoners behind bars will openly induce the prisoners and their families to take this cause into their own hands. It is [an invitation for the families] to take actions for their release,” Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 25, 1998.
The Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) is an independent, non-profit organization providing translations of the Arab media and original analysis and research on developments in the Middle East. Copies of articles and documents cited, as well as background information, are available upon request.
Yotam Feldner is MEMRI’s Director of Media Analysis.
Aaron Mannes is MEMRI’s Director of Research.