The noise in recent days from the Israeli lobby against the release of Palestinian prisoners was the opposite of the limited interest the Palestinian public was showing before the release early Wednesday. But the media in the Palestinian Authority was trying to create an atmosphere of excitement and joy - they’re laying on the nationalist songs, interviews with the parents of prisoners and interviews with the people who have made a living from the “prisoners file” for 20 years.
The official spokesmen were asking once again that this be depicted as a big achievement for the PA, especially for President Mahmoud Abbas - another step on the way to ending the occupation. But the masses’ general apathy hasn’t waned.
There were a number of reasons. The natural joy over the release of 26 longtime prisoners doesn’t change the fact that the Palestinians are troubled by an abundance of problems that touch every family and individual. And everyone knows that these problems aren’t about to be solved.
Here are some examples: the fate of the Palestinian refugees who remain in Syria or are among the more than two million people who have been displaced; Israel’s success in ignoring the international position and continuing to build in the settlements and expropriate land; the dangers awaiting olive pickers and farmers in general from the settlers; salaries liable not to be paid next month; the social, political and economic disintegration of East Jerusalem, which is being cut off from the West Bank; the blockade of Gaza that has only become more serious since the coup in Egypt; and the Palestinian political schism whose end is nowhere in sight.
Another reason for the absence of rejoicing was the broad opposition to relaunching the peace talks with Israel under the continued construction in the settlements and the large doubts about the talks’ results. Even those who supported a relaunch of the negotiations know that the chances of an acceptable agreement are slim. It’s clear to everyone that the return to futile talks was the price the PA paid for the prisoner release - prisoners of war in Palestinian eyes - 20 years late.
Some people even think that this was a too high a price for giving up on the aggressive diplomatic channel at the United Nations - but they can’t say it in public. They don’t want to create the impression that the fate of the prisoners and the pain of their families aren’t important to them. (Hamas managed to cover up the very high price - in human life, wounded and economic damage - that the Palestinians paid for the release of the prisoners in the Gilad Shalit deal. They don’t talk about this openly either.)
And another reason: The releases at the beginning of the Oslo process were understood as the beginning of the end of the arrests and the granting of freedom to thousands of Palestinians every year. This is no longer so. Everyone knows that within three days after the release of the 26 prisoners, the Israeli security apparatus will “compensate” itself and fill the quota with more Palestinian detainees.
Just this Monday, soldiers in Hebron arrested two more members of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the Hamas Change and Reform slate in the West Bank: Nizar Ramadan, 53, and Mohammed Bader, 55. In doing so the number of legislative council members jailed in Israel reached 15 - nine of whom are under extended administrative detention.
Also Monday, another 20 or so Palestinians were arrested throughout the West Bank, including students from Hebron and Nablus. The Israeli policy of arrests is seen as part of the apparatus of regular repression - institutionalized and planned - that is inherent to a foreign ruler that imposes itself on a population. The release of a few prisoners does not signal a change in the Israeli approach.
Amid the apathy concerning the prisoners, the PA is trying to revive the issue abroad. On Sunday, in South Africa’s Robben Island prison - which has been converted into a museum - in the same cell where Nelson Mandela was held, the “Free Marwan Barghouti and All Palestinian Political Prisoners” international campaign was launched. (The word order is first Barghouti and then all the prisoners.)
Representatives of Fatah, the PA and Palestinian human rights groups came to South Africa for the launch of the campaign, along with Barghouti’s wife Fadwa Barghouti. On hand were members of the African National Congress, and at the head of the group was Ahmed Kathadra, the 84-year-old former prisoner who served 26 years of a life sentence and hard labor handed down during the apartheid era. Mandela, Kathadra and many others had committed the crime of belonging to the African National Congress’ military wing.
The campaign is conveying: Just as South African prisoners who were opponents of apartheid were released as negotiations were under way (and even before they were officially under way), the Palestinian prisoners must be released. In today’s Israel there’s a kind of apartheid similar to what prevailed in those days in South Africa. And Barghouti is the Mandela of the Palestinians who must be released to advance the negotiations for change.
Abroad this may sound good, but it’s another reason for the Palestinians who have stayed home not to celebrate. Their doubts about their leaders both inside and outside the prisons runs very deep.