So Many Palestinian Prisoners

The Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7 have shiftedthe global attention back to the Palestine-Israel issue. As we go to press the hostage -for-prisoner swap has been stopped by Israel after the expiry of extended ‘humanitarian pause’ on November 30. Israel has been under international pressure to agree to some agreement, and the Netanyahu “unity” government has felt the heat, for seeming to disregard the hostage. Internal discontent against Netanyahu is rising. Thousands of demonstrators are rallying in Tel Aviv to keep pressure on their government to secure the release of hostages. As the cease-fire lasts longer than original time-frame, Hamas which controlled all of Gaza until Israel invaded it, would have more time to regroup. The same is true of the Israeli Defence Forces–IDF. Now the cease-fire is over and Israel is all set to start its military campaign, this time in South Gaza.

Meanwhile, some Israeli hostages have been released in exchange of Palestinian prisoners languishing in jails of Israel for years. The fate of the remaining hostages is still unclear. What is clear is that the war will continue after the brief cease-fire. The so-called humanitarian pause allowed both sides to prepare further for the fighting. As usual both sides have claimed victory. Surprisingly Netanyahu visited Gaza strip to encourage his soldiers who are camping in prime locations, including Gaza University. It is also a message to the world that he is in charge despite his shaky presence in domestic politics.

For one thing this was not the first time that Israel engaged itself in hostage exchanges. They resorted to this kind of practice many times before and thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been released as a result of such settlements over the years. In 2011, 1,027 Palestinians were let out of prison in exchange for one Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas. This diplomatic culture is not unique to Israel only. Even in America, whatever they say about hostage crisis at the start, it almost always ends in paying the captors’ ransom—be it agreeing to a prisoner swap or releasing a large sum of money. Tel Aviv knows hostage crisis may recur anytime and hostage deal will always involve release of prisoners. It is one reason so many Palestinians are always detained illegally in the West Bank or what the Israelis call Samaria.

Before October 7, the number of Palestinians held by Israel under administrative detention was already at a 20-year high. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, there were 1,310 Palestinians imprisoned without charge or trial at the end of September, including at least 146 minors. Since then, Israel has dramatically increased its use of administrative detention, pushing the number of detainees to over 2,000 within the first four weeks of the war. This is out of a total of roughly 7,000 Palestinian prisoners at the moment. Then thousands of others are serving sentences because unlike administrative detainees, they actually were charged with a crime and convicted.

This administrative detention by Israel is illegal. They do it under the pretext of security concern. In reality they create an excuse to prosecute people of their fundamental rights and freedoms because they challenge the Israeli military occupation. In sense administrative detainees are political prisoners but the Israeli authorities treat them as criminals.

West Bank is not part of Israel’s sovereign territory and therefore subject to military laws that restrict people’s civil rights. The detainees from the West Bank can appeal their detention orders but very few appeals succeed because neither the detainees nor their lawyers are told what evidence Israel has against them. Many young men and children are in detention for throwing stones. Even a Facebook post may invite imprisonment.

Now the cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel for a short period was surely a welcome break in a barbaric war. Not least, it permitted UN-sponsored food and fuel to enter a devastated Gaza. The hostage diplomacy, however, doesn’t make the region or the world much closer to a lasting peace.


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Vol 56, No. 24, Dec 10 - 16, 2023