The release of another 440 Palestinian prisoners is a nice gesture to the Israel Prisons Service. It lessens the terrible overcrowding in the jails, albeit only slightly. And it eases the burden on the security establishment, which has not completely succeeded in avoiding its obligation to allow some family members to visit their loved ones once every two weeks.
The release of prisoners ?without blood on their hands? − or, to dispense with the language laundering, those who were not found guilty of murdering Jews − is a small correction that the bureaucracy of occupation is making in the process of arresting, trying and convicting Palestinians. Conviction in the military tribunals is almost always a foregone conclusion. The punishments are harsh and excessive with regard to every count in the indictment. They are motivated by revenge on the part of representatives of the occupying people against representatives of the occupied people. No detainee is given the minimal rights needed to defend himself against the accusations. The threat of detention ?(in unbearable conditions?) until the end of proceedings spurs the accused and those who represent him to sign a plea bargain without cross-examining the prosecution?s witnesses and verifying their veracity. True, civilian courts are also not immune to discrimination and prejudice, but it is reasonable to assume that were the military tribunals to conduct themselves in the same way as the civilian courts do, many Palestinian detainees would not be convicted at all, due to a lack of concrete evidence, while others would be sentenced to much shorter terms. With this in mind, the prisoner release is also a gesture to the military judges: They will have fewer months of unjustifiable detention on their consciences.
During the 1990s, Israel released some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners within the framework of the Oslo accords. Just as it was in Ireland and South Africa, that is the accepted practice: When, in a struggle against national repression, the parties agree to make peace, the occupying party recognizes that the violence of the prisoners it releases was a response to its own violence. This is not a gesture, but a necessary step toward a solution. The released Palestinians included almost all of those who had been convicted of murdering other Palestinians ?(due to suspicions that they were collaborators?). But Israel refused to release Palestinians who had been convicted of murdering Jews. It also refused to release detainees from East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or Israel. Some 84 prisoners who belong to these four categories have already been in prison between 18 and 30 years, serving life sentences that will end only with their own deaths.
If these prisoners had been Jews, they would have been released long ago − whether because, as Jews who murdered Palestinians, their sentences would have been commuted by the president ?(Ami Popper, who murdered seven workers, is the exception among Jewish prisoners who murdered Palestinians; he gets regular furloughs but has not been released?), or because they would have been charged with lesser crimes than murder to begin with and would not have been tried in military tribunals. Had Said al A?tabeh of Nablus, the most veteran of the Palestinian prisoners, been a Jew, he would not have started serving his 31st year in jail in July, with no end in sight. He was convicted of commanding a Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell, one of whose members planted a bomb that killed one Israeli and wounded another 32. If Muhkhles Burghal from Lod, who was convicted 20 years ago of throwing a hand grenade that failed to explode at a bus carrying soldiers, had been a Jew, he would not have been imprisoned until now, with another 20 years still to go − without the right to furloughs, without the right to hug his 70-year-old mother.
These are the prisoners whose release today, yesterday or 10 years ago would have proven that Israel is indeed interested in change, recognizes its own long history of violence and seeks to reduce it. Its failure to release them is not only a bitter disappointment to their families and friends. It is a blow to everyone who is interested in a solution of peace.