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Prisoner Releases: Contributing to the Peace...

Prisoner Releases: Contributing to the Peace Process

by Ashraf al Ajrami, Yediot Ahronot

This op-ed was an outcome of the participation of the deputy opinion page editor at Yediot Ahronot in a seminar for Israeli and Palestinian journalists organized by the Geneva Initiative in Athens in October. Senior Geneva Initiative member, Ashraf al Ajrami, also participated in the seminar and prepared the op-ed at the request of Yediot Ahronot. The seminar was supported by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
 
3.11.2013
(Translation from the Hebrew by Geneva Initiative staff)
 
Each time that the issue arises of releasing prisoners from Israeli jails– and it doesn't matter how they are released: as part of an agreement with the Palestinian leadership or in a prisoner exchange – it stirs up a storm amongst the Israeli public. This is exactly what has occurred over the last few days with the release of 26 prisoners as part of the agreement to renew negotiations between the two sides.
 
 
Author Ashraf al Ajrami at the seminar for Journalists organized by the Geneva Initiative
 
Due to the stormy feelings and Israeli opposition, in most cases there is no attempt made to understand the significance for the Palestinians of the prisoner releases and there is no effective public debate in Israel on whether prisoner releases can contribute to the success of the peace process.

In Israel, there is no understanding that there is a broad Palestinian consensus on the issue of prisoners, who are seen as freedom fighters who were ready to risk their lives for their homeland – regardless of what exactly they did, and even if they acted against the policy of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian people see them as heroes and as victims of the occupation. When Israel accuses the prisoners of acts of terror or states that their hands are contaminated with blood, Palestinians respond that the occupation is itself an act of terror and the source of the violence; Palestinians also make comparisons between the number of civilian casualties - children, women and innocent bystanders – as a result of violence on both sides.

However, the main issue that most Israelis are unaware of is the fact that, after their release, most former prisoners volunteer to join the efforts to create peace. Most former prisoners believe in peace, and are willing to work to promote it despite the harsh criticism which is directed against them for their involvement in promoting peace. They participate in activities that are not popular in Palestinian society, such as meetings with sectors of Israeli society, including politicians and intellectuals, and in doing so they believe that they are furthering the Palestinian interest and serving their people.

Prisoners in Israeli prisons have the opportunity to learn the Hebrew language and to get to know Israelis. This perhaps explains the participation of many former prisoners in the promotion of peace. The allegation that prisoners return to violent activity after their release is greatly exaggerated and is intended to create an atmosphere which is hostile to further prisoner releases. Israeli opposition to prisoner releases as a part of the peace process strengthens the Palestinian extremists – those who argue that there is only one way that has proved itself – kidnapping Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them for prisoners. From their perspective, Israel understands only the language of power. This is not the preferred approach of those who see themselves as a part of the Palestinian peace camp, but we are pleased when prisoners are released, regardless of the method.

The planned release of 104 prisoners is only a small step when compared to what will be needed to achieve genuine peace, but it is an important step for the Palestinian public, and therefore contributes to the possibility of peace. Our hope is that the efforts being made by the United States will succeed in bringing the positions of the two sides closer and to bridge the large gaps between them. If the US does not succeed, we will all have a much bigger problem.

The author is a former Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs and senior member of the Geneva Initiative