When Palestinian leaders agreed to suspend their efforts to join various United Nations agencies last summer, the United States assured them that all 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would be released. This was not the first time that the United States had made such a promise. At the 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh summit, attended by US, Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli leaders, agreement was reached that these particular prisoners would be released. Nothing happened, however, until last year, when US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a quid pro quo. Palestinian prisoners would be released in return for Palestine suspending its bid to join UN agencies. Failure to release the prisoners would relieve the Palestinians of their commitment.
The Israelis keep trying to get something new for the same goods. In fact, Israeli attempts to sell the same goods more than once are at the center of a dispute that could blow up this fragile agreement. Israeli officials, including Tzipi Livni, justice minister and head of negotiations, now want the Palestinians to commit to the continuation of the peace talks after the April 29 deadline in return for Israel releasing the last tranche of prisoners. Palestinian officials have rejected this request and warn that they will restart their efforts to join some 63 international agencies if the Israelis carry out their threat not to release the prisoners by the end of March.
Although hesitation and similar threats have followed each of the previous three rounds of prisoner releases, many are concerned that the Israelis are more serious this time. One of the areas that seems to be causing difficulty for them is in part of their own making. When the agreement was reached last summer, Palestinians had expected that all 104 prisoners would be released at once. Although the Israeli cabinet voted on the total number of prisoners to be released, it broke their release into four stages, with each requiring its reconfirmation. Furthermore, the Israelis postponed the release of the prisoners who are Israeli citizens or residents until the last batch. The Israelis' latest plan is to release some of the remaining prisoners, but to hold off on freeing the Israeli citizens, whom they call “Israeli Arabs.”
Israel is particularly sensitive about the release of prisoners who are citizens because it considers them traitors. Nonetheless, in previous prisoner exchanges over the years, Israel has released Palestinian prisoners who are Israeli citizens.
One of the reasons why Palestinian officials are adamantly opposed to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is that 20% of the country's population are non-Jewish Palestinians. The idea that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is going to bat to demand that these Palestinians be released along with their brothers from the West Bank seems to touch a nerve in Israel. It exposes the Zionist mythology that Jews were a people without a land who had come to a land without a people. If 1.6 million Palestinians live in this land, then the entire enterprise of calling Israel a Jewish state has trouble.
For Israel, its Palestinian citizens are not members of the Palestinian nation, and their relationship to Palestine is merely that of religion. Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, reflects this exclusive Jewishness. It goes, in part, "As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart / With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion." The anthem, like the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, represents the Israeli narrative, which entirely contradicts the Palestinian narrative, which focuses on the Nakba — the 1948 catastrophe that turned most Palestinians into refugees. The Palestinians' narrative also includes those Palestinians who stayed in Palestine or were internally displaced during the days of the 1948 war. Palestinians living in Israel have always been part of this narrative.
Palestine’s poet, Mahmoud Darwish, novelist Emile Habibi and political theorist Azmi Bishara are among famous Palestinians who were or are Israeli citizens. While some Palestinian citizens of Israel eventually left Israel to join the national Palestinian movement, many stayed and insist on staying. The list of the remaining prisoners due to be released on March 29 include eight Palestinian citizens of Israel and four Jerusalemites who have Israeli residency. Any attempts to separate Palestinians who live within the 1948 borders of Israel from fellow Palestinians will be rejected by all Palestinians, including the PLO, even if the Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel within the 1967 borders.