The jubilation over Israel’s release last week of 26 Palestinian prisoners was understandable to an extent. After all, the issue is highly emotive for a people with thousands of loved ones languishing in Israeli jails, victims of a woefully unjust judicial system.
However, that must be tempered by the fact that Israel used the prisoner release as cover to announce 5,000 new settler homes on occupied territory, while Palestinian attention was diverted with celebrations. Israeli newspaper Haaretz described this as “an effort to ‘offset’ the release of Palestinian prisoners.” Indeed, 1,500 of these illegal homes were announced immediately after the release.
The cover may have even been used by the Palestinian Authority. While it has denied Israeli claims that it knew of the settlement announcement beforehand, the fact that it is still partaking in negotiations is highly suspect. So is the fact that almost three-quarters of those released (19 out of 26) are reportedly members of the Fatah party, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
Given that Israel has made a habit out of announcing further settlement expansion along with previous prisoner releases, the PA can hardly claim ignorance. The last such occasion was in August, when Israel released 26 prisoners while announcing plans for more than 2,000 new settler homes.
Israel portrays these releases as painful concessions, while the United States praises them as important confidence-building measures. “The decision to release the prisoners is one of the most difficult I’ve had to make,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week. This, of course, is blatant propaganda aimed at legitimizing settlement expansion as some kind of farcical balancing act or compensatory measure.
Releasing a handful of prisoners, all of them jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accord, while announcing thousands of new settler homes is clearly of far greater benefit to Israel than to the Palestinian people. However, it also benefits the PA, if only in the short term, despite the fact that it cannot be oblivious to Israel’s manipulations in this regard.
The PA uses the prisoner issue cynically, trying to boost its dwindling domestic popularity through such small-scale releases, and appeasing its Fatah support base by ensuring that most of those freed come from its ranks. This achieves quick, easy results, but in the grand scheme of things they are mere breadcrumbs. All the while, Israel arrests Palestinians at a far greater rate than those it releases.
Meanwhile, last week a top official with the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization said the current Israeli negotiating position is the worst since before the Oslo Accord was signed 20 years ago. Yasser Abed Rabbo added that there had been “no tangible progress” in talks that resumed in July after a hiatus of nearly three years.
“They want… the borders of the state of Palestine [to] be set out according to Israeli security needs that never end, and that will undermine the possibility of establishing a sovereign Palestinian state,” said Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the PLO executive committee.
Since the latest round of negotiations has been ongoing for months, why is the PA continuing to talk? This lends credence to suspicions that it is bowing to unreasonable conditions, and making concessions that it should not be making. Allegations that the secrecy surrounding the talks is precisely so that such concessions can be made without a public backlash are proving less and less outlandish.
After all, Israel has announced several thousand new settler homes since the talks began – the very antithesis of negotiating in good faith. The PA is simply accepting this by continuing to talk while its people’s lands are relentlessly colonized.
It is playing a dangerous and futile game. The PA cannot indefinitely make small gains to cover up much bigger losses. It also cannot forever dupe the Palestinian people into thinking that its unconditional, supine commitment to negotiations – with a party that has consistently shown its disdain for a genuine peace – is bearing fruit.
There are two further releases of 26 prisoners forthcoming. I will not be celebrating, because this will come at a price that the Palestinians cannot afford to pay, and with the shameful knowledge and acquiescence of their leaders.
Given that the occupation and colonization of Palestine is continuing unabated, releasing prisoners is not granting them freedom if they are simply moving to a larger (though ever-shrinking) jail under the same warden. The only thing worse than the denial of freedom is the illusion of it.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London’s City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council’s “Breakaway Award,” given to promising new journalists, “for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East.” He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash