Another deal was signed with Palestinian prisoners. This time they commit (again) not to engage in terror, and Israel commits to softening up on them. Meanwhile, everyone has forgotten the reason that Israel toughened its prison conditions in the first place. The fear of a prisoner dying while engaging in a hunger strike overcame concern over violating our own principles. We have short memories.
Terrorists are comfortable in Israeli prisons. A daily routine includes television screens, a canteen, entertainment, family visits and meticulous conditions. It was once even better, and even now it’s not bad, but the Palestinian prisoners still ask for more.
Just before Gilad Shalit’s release, the living conditions of Palestinian prisoners was the subject of scathing public debate. The result was a cutback in perks. The legal system suddenly discovered that it is not written in any law book that “human rights” include degrees from the Open University and cable television. Shalit was, at the time, held captive under solitary confinement, and the Israeli public could not understand the lack of proportionality under the auspices of the state. Now Gilad Shalit is outside. For better or worse, Israel paid a steep price. But the Palestinian terrorists still inside prison have found the way back to the longed-for perks.
The State of Israel is very sensitive to external criticism — some would say too sensitive. The fact that in certain sections of Europe Israel is automatically deemed the guilty party does not make it any easier for us when facing dilemmas of this type. The burden of proof is always on our shoulders, and that is also true regarding the prisoners. About 1,600 security prisoners conducted a hunger strike for almost a month. They began it as a sign of solidarity with two prisoners under administrative detention, and continued on their own with demands for perks.
The wave of strikes began with Khader 'Adnan, a member of the Islamic Jihad who proved that if you go far enough and risk your life sufficiently, you can influence the Israelis. In February of this year, after two months of a hunger strike while under administrative detention, 'Adnan brought the state prosecutor’s office to announce that his detention would not be extended beyond April 17. 'Adnan was not released, but he succeeded in bending the system. For two months he created world interest in his health, and when he was on the verge of collapse, he was saved by a compromise. After 'Adnan came Hanna Shelbi’s turn, another administrative prisoner who dieted for 30 days until her release.
From there, the path to a mass hunger strike was a very short one.
The dilemma we face is not easy to solve. On the one hand, the images of dying prisoners do not bode well for Israel’s public diplomacy; neither does international discussion of the administrative-detention tool — a strange legal animal that is not really employed by most democratic countries, even though it may officially appear on the books. On the other hand, prisoners have quickly learned how to haggle to beat the system. If the State of Israel compromises time after time because it is worried about unpleasant pictures in the newspapers, the prisoners know that it will compromise yet again.
It is difficult to say what solution is just and what solution is smart, but it is possible and necessary to find other solutions instead of granting perks to incarcerated terrorists.
Marwan Barghouti (a Fatah political leader sentenced to five life sentences for murder), popular among certain Israelis, is an interesting example. At the beginning — when Haim Oron, Amos Oz and Ron Pundak courted him at the entrance to his cell — Barghouti occasionally used to announce hunger strikes. But then the Prison Service discovered his method: Barghouti was the one to declare a hunger strike but eat in secret, while others — the simple folk — were the ones to go hungry. Each person had his mission in life. Photographs of Barghouti were distributed and the strike ended.
Tricks like this don’t always work. Sometimes we have to face an unpleasant reality, even if it takes its toll on our public image.