Palestinian Prisoners of Israel: Heroes or Cowardly Lions?
It is difficult to believe that the Palestinians really want peace with Israel. One excuse after another is given for their refusal to enter into or to continue peace negotiations. The latest excuse has come a result of Palestinian unilateral action after the delay in the release that had been expected on March 29, 2014, of 26 prisoners, including 14 Arab citizens of Israel from Israeli jails. This was to be the last batch of the 104 security prisoners that Israel had on July 28, 2013 agreed to release as a confidence-building goodwill gesture to encourage the Palestinian leadership to come to the negotiating table.
The Israeli Government had taken action to delay the release of this last group of prisoners because the Palestinians had refused to extend the negotiations beyond the April 29, 2014 deadline that clearly left insufficient time for final agreement. In response, Mahmoud Abbas, the non-elected “president” of the Palestinian Authority, in suspiciously unprecedented celerity, acted in unilateral fashion. He announced on April 1 that he had taken steps to sign and apply for membership in 15 international treaties and protocols, thus preempting the whole point of the negotiations.
The black comedy continues as the Palestinians refuse to take “yes” for an answer. The Palestinian Minister of Prisoners, Issa Karaka, has threatened to take the delayed prisoner release issue to the United Nations and other international organizations. At the same time, the 40th anniversary of Palestine Prisoners Day was held in London on April 17, 2014 to express solidarity with Palestinians “imprisoned by the Israeli occupation.”
Saeb Erekat, member of the PLO Executive Committee and so-called “negotiator,” is often the leading man in the spectacle of this non-stop comedy. He enacted his familiar fantasy that “Israel has oppressed millions, in many varying ways,” before his heartrending climax that the “plight of the prisoners reflects the plight of the Palestinian people as a whole.” Forgetting that 78 prisoners had already been released, his rapturous conclusion was that the release of the Palestinian prisoners (the remaining 26) would be the first signal that “freedom is on the way.”
Erekat’s role in the drama was upstaged by Hanan Ashrawi another familiar performer in the Palestinian drama, whose well-delivered utterances as a Palestinian spokesperson are still taken seriously by the Western mainstream media, especially the New York Times and the BBC. Like Erekat, she is also a member of the PLO Executive and one assumes she has inside knowledge of its functioning. Surprisingly, she has forgotten her lines in the comedy that concern the urgent need to deal with the corruption, internal feuding, and inefficiency of the Palestinian authorities. Instead, she has substituted the lines that the release of prisoners remains the PLO’s top priority. Ashrawi commended the bravery and determination of all Palestinian prisoners and “their continued steadfastness and commitment to freedom in the face of the belligerent occupier.” She ended her performance by calling on the audience, the members of the international community, to “expose Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners.”
Through her rhetoric drawing attention to that treatment, Ashrawi gave the “international community” the opportunity to learn about these prisoners who she said had demonstrated “bravery and determination.” She omitted that these qualities had been displayed not in strikes against the Israeli military but in attacks on innocent Israeli civilians.
Courtesy of Ashrawi, the international community can now examine the bravery of those released from Israeli prisons. Of those in the first batch of 26 prisoners, released in August 2013, 20 were convicted of murder, four were accessory to murder, one was guilty of throwing explosives, and one of abduction. In all, these brave individuals murdered 38 innocent, unarmed people.
The longest serving prisoner, Fayez Mutawi al-Khur, former head of a Fatah terrorist cell, was jailed in November 1985 for one murder and another attempted murder in the Gaza City market. While in prison, he was also convicted of planning to kill then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Another brave prisoner, Atiyeh Salem Musa, used an axe to murder a 67 year old Holocaust survivor during Passover 1994 in Petah Tikva. A third brave prisoner, Midhat Fayez Barbakh, ambushed his Israeli employer in Rishon Lezion in January 1994. He stabbed his 61 year old employer with a knife and a pair of pruning shears.
The list of the “brave” prisoners continues. Salah Ibrahim Ahmed Mugdad, was arrested in June 1993 for murdering a 72 year old security guard at a hotel in Netanya. He struck the victim on the head with an iron bar and then stole a television set from the hotel. Salameh Abdallah Musleh was convicted in 1993 of the murder of a grocery store owner in Petah Tikva. He bound the victim’s arms and legs, and beat him to death. Several other murders were committed by using an ax, one was against a 79 year old man sitting on a public bench in Kfar Saba, another on an 84 year old man in the Sharon region.
One looks forward to the international community’s verdict on these men who have demonstrated “their commitment to freedom” and their bravery and determination, although that bravery seems to be limited to murdering elderly Jewish civilians or innocent tourists, such as the French woman tourist stabbed to death in a restaurant in which she was dining. That community will judge if the action of these former prisoners constitutes what Ashrawi has called “a proactive method of nonviolent resistance that is essential to the Palestinian struggle for equality and freedom.”
What is so troubling about this issue is not simply learning of the murderous and brutal acts of the Palestinian prisoners. It is also witnessing the hypocrisy of Palestinian authorities and spokespersons in not disavowing that brutality. For some years the Palestinian Authority has granted a monthly salary to all Palestinian prisoners put in jail for security and terror-related offences. No salary is given to those imprisoned for theft, but only to those who have committed murder. Priority in funding is given to the families of “Martyrs,” the honored terrorists, or more disingenuously the “heroes and self-sacrificing fighters.”
The money comes out of the PA’s general budget, some of which comes from the international community. The European Union provides 11 million euros for Palestinian salaries and pensions. Even the PA felt uncomfortable on the issue. For public relations purposes it changed the name of the funding from “salary” to “assistance.”
The “freedom loving” Palestinian prisoners must have been startled by the freedom and the comfortable conditions to which they were “subjected” in Israeli jails. After all, Hanan Ashrawi had told them of Israel’s “criminal treatment… the flagrant breach of the rights of Palestinian prisoners… of the cruel and dehumanizing measures that constitute war crimes.” The prisoners must be annoyed at Ashrawi, who did not know that according to international reports conditions in those jails generally meet international standards. Prisoners have reasonable access to visitors, including relatives from the West Bank who can come into Israel for visits. They can participate in their religious observance. They can submit a petition to judicial authorities about prison conditions, and those petitions are then investigated.
Even more surprising, especially for bigoted boycotters of Israel, is that many prisoners in Israeli jails today have access to the Open University. Israel pays their tuition in full for extensive programs and allows students to do work towards their degrees on computers. Yet there are limits regarding those who have committed violent crimes. Until recently even those incarcerated for terrorism could participate in this program and receive free college education. But in December 2012 the Israeli High Court ruled that terrorist security prisoners were not eligible for free university education in Israeli schools. The Court refused the lawsuit by three of these particular terrorist prisoners who claimed discrimination because they were not allowed to enroll in an Open University program and have their tuition paid. No doubt, Erekat and Ashrawi will lose no time in pointing out that these restrictions are “human rights abuses,” and are violations of international law.
Palestinian spokespersons may enjoy playing their role in the comedy of the “brave” murderers who are prisoners in Israeli jails. They surely cannot enjoy the continuing tragedy caused by fellow Palestinians. On April 14, 2014 an Israeli man was killed and his wife and son were wounded while they were on the way to a Passover Seder, by a well-planned terrorist attack near Hebron. To his credit Mahmoud Abbas condemned the violence. However, the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, saluted the “heroes of Hebron” and said that the killing “brought back life to the path of resistance.” He warned of more attacks against Israel.
Yes, it is difficult to believe that the Palestinians really want peace. When will the “international community” recognize the true purpose of Palestinian roadblocks to the peace process?
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.