It seems like an old, scratchy record: Everyone seems to know what to do and what to say. It first started with disinformation followed by governmental maneuvering and ended with a government decision. Now all that everyone is waiting for is the expiration of the mandatory 48 hours.
The issue is the second group of Palestinian prisoners set to be released under an agreement reached on the eve of the Palestinian-Israeli talks. Palestinians agreed to suspend all attempts to join international organizations as a state in return for Israel releasing 104 prisoners held before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Just as in the previous round, the trouble began with a barrage of articles, protests and statements opposing the release of what Israeli media call “Palestinian terrorists.” The attacks were then followed by an attempt to suggest further Jewish settlement as a quid pro quo for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Furthermore, some Israeli radicals also suggested that released prisoners be deported rather than be allowed to go to their homes.
Palestinian leaders, who are aware that radical statements can quickly translate into policy, are trying to stop the problem in its infancy before some mainstream officials feel obliged by public pressure to respond.
This round, for example, Palestinians took turns knocking down radical Israeli demands. The PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi led the emergency response team with a statement strongly rebuffing Israeli attempts to equate the prisoners’ release with new settlement activities: “Such reports are fabricated and malicious; the Palestinian side never agreed to such an exchange. On the contrary, Palestinian prisoners should have been released in compliance with earlier signed agreements. The only linkage with the release of prisoners that the president approved is in delaying the pursuit of UN membership in international agencies and organizations.”
The second round of Palestinian objections came from the minister of prisoner affairs. Issa Qaraqee told the Ma'an News Agency that Israeli regularly makes the deportation offer, linked to prisoners on hunger strikes or prisoners slated for release. “Deporting Palestinian prisoners is political blackmail, and the PA refused the offer,” Qaraqe told the Palestinian news agency.
After this round of Israeli diversion attempts and the Palestinian rejection, the Israeli government did meet and decide to approve the release of the prisoners as agreed to without attempting either to link it to new illegal settlements or to the equally illegal deportation policy.
While the Israeli government did approve the request to release a batch of 26 new prisoners, it appeared to have again delayed the release of any Palestinian prisoner who is not living in areas under the control of the military government.
The list of the 26 Palestinian prisoners released by the Israel prison authority includes 21 who are from the West Bank and five whose homes are in Gaza. Of the prisoners expected to be released, four belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, three belong to Hamas and the remaining 19 belong to the Fatah movement. According to the Palestinian Prisoner Club, the prisoners whose home is Jerusalem or Israel are not included in the second group of prisoners expected to be released shortly after midnight Tuesday. To Israelis, east Jerusalem falls within the state’s civilian law as a result of the unilateral decision to impose Israeli law on the occupied parts of Jerusalem. Many Israelis, reject the release of Palestinian citizens or residents of Israel, saying it would be tantamount to Israeli recognition that the these prisoners answer to the Palestinian government, not the Israeli one.
The Israeli high court will be open for 48 hours from the publication on the Israeli prison authority’s website of the names of the prisoners approved for release. If no complaint is launched, or barring the unlikely decision by the Israeli high court stopping the release, five prisoners would be escorted to Gaza’s Erez checkpoint, while the remaining 21 prisoners will be released from the Ofra prison near Ramallah and will get a hero’s welcome at the Palestinian government Muqata headquarters. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and senior PLO officials will no doubt join the family and friends of these veteran prisoners to officially welcome them before they go to their respective towns and villages throughout the Palestinian West Bank.
So long as the nine-month-long talks are on track, this exact routine will most likely happen again at least twice more, thus ending the long suffering of prisoners who should have been released more than 12 years ago as part of the Sept. 4, 1999, Sharm el-Sheikh agreement.
Daoud Kuttab is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab