By Jenny Long
The issue of political prisoners and conditions for their release has dogged the peace process between Israel and the PLO. Despite the Cairo Accord, which in May agreed to the release of 5000 of 10,000 prisoners, the July survey of the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners in Ramallah, West Bank, reported that 7170 Palestinian prisoners remain detained by Israeli authorities.
The prisoners are dispersed among 20 prisons and detention camps. At the time of the signing of the accord (September 13, 1993), well over 10,000 Palestinians were incarcerated by Israeli authorities. This is more political prisoners per head of the Palestinian population than the South African state ever held during the long struggle against apartheid.
For the Palestinians, the release of political prisoners has been considered an important confidence-building measure in the peace process; the issue touches every Palestinian family in the occupied territories.
The fact that so many Palestinians still remain imprisoned highlights the Israeli state's determination to control civic and political life in the occupied territories. The issue has also raised tensions within the Palestinian population over its leadership's priorities in the negotiating process.
While many of the prisoners are detained in the West Bank, the majority are in military detention camps in Israel, without access to their families and often in very bad conditions. Ansar 3, in the Naqab, holds 3000 prisoners and Mejiddo prison, 4275; hundreds more are being held in the detention camps at Dhariyeh, Fara'a and Tulkarm.
The release conditions specified by Israel — a significant point of conflict — has been exacerbated by confusion amongst prisoners about what the Palestinian leadership has agreed to.
The conditions for release include the signing of an oath, the wording of which has been amended over time. Initially, prisoners were required to sign an oath indicating their support for the peace process, as well as pledging to avoid "terrorist" activities and to respect the law. Many prisoners, including members of so-called terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were prepared to abide by the non-violence clause, citing their struggle as a non-violent one. But as non-supporters of the peace accords, these groups felt discriminated against. This requirement was later withdrawn after repeated refusals by prisoners to sign the oath.
Despite prisoners signing the amended oath, Israeli prison authorities have refused to release many on the basis of their political affiliation. Many members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — all of which are opposed to the peace accords — have been refused release.
On June 22, a statement released by prisoners at Askelon said that of 140 prisoners who were asked by prison authorities to sign the oath, only 35 were released. According to the remaining 105, prison authorities had told some of the prisoners that Israel would not release them even if they did sign.
A further release requirement was that prisoners complete their sentences in the self-rule areas. Israeli officials and the Joint Security Liaison Committee in Gaza agreed to release prisoners to the Palestinian police force as long as they served the remainder of their sentences in the autonomous areas.
This agreement was subsequently rejected by the Palestinian National Authority. PNA official Jamil Tarifi advised the Israeli authorities on June 7 of the decision to return the conditions for prisoner release to the Joint Security Liaison Committee for further discussion; Palestinian prisoners were released to the Palestinian authorities in Jericho on June 8.
Article XX of the Cairo Accord stipulates that some prisoners will be released directly to their homes, while others will be turned over to the PNA to be confined in the Gaza Strip or Jericho for the remainder of their sentences.
Although Article XX is ambiguous on which prisoners must remain in the autonomous areas, Tarifi said "everybody knew what this meant. We agreed that the prisoners who would have to be sent [to the autonomous areas] would only be those sentenced for killing — those with life sentences". There is opposition to prisoners remaining in the autonomous areas; prisoners have stated they would rather remain in prison with free board and lodging than be confined to the autonomous areas where they will be separated from their families and be without the means to support themselves.
There has been an outbreak in mobilisations for prisoners' release; political prisoners are initiating actions and calling for solidarity actions from the Palestinian people.
On June 21, a hunger strike was begun by prisoners in Jneid prison in Nablus. The strike, the first declared by the prisoner movement, adopted the theme "no peace with release of all prisoners without prejudice or conditions". A statement released on June 22 by the Jneid Prison Struggle Committee called a solidarity week from June 24 and appealed for committees to organise support activities.
The hunger strike subsequently spread to other prisons, including Tel Mond prison for women and prisoners under 18, where leading prison activist Rabiha Shitayyeh was held. Shitayyeh maintained her hunger strike to demand the release of 47 Palestinian women prisoners from June 23 until her release on July 21 for health reasons. Israeli authorities had been resisting her release citing her active membership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the lead-up to her release, there was a spirited demonstration outside Tel Mond organised by the Womens' Organisation for Political Prisoners and attended by friends and families of prisoners, activists as well as as the Israeli peace group, Gush Shalom.
There have been many other prisoner solidarity actions including student sit-ins and protests at Nablus (which was broken up by Israeli soldiers with tear gas and rubber bullets), Bethlehem and Gaza. In response to this upsurge, President Arafat has appointed a special commission to look into the situation for Palestinian political prisoners. The commission's members were nominated by the Struggle Committee of Juneid Prison in Nablus.
In the June 25 Jerusalem Times Jamal Shobaki, a member of the commission and an ex-prisoner, rejected the signing of an oath and the restriction of prisoners to Gaza and Jericho as a condition for release.
"The PLO has signed for the Palestinian people and Israel is not allowed to impose any additional conditions.
"Forcing the released prisoners to stay in Jericho is part of the continuation of depriving them [of their] freedom and is a part of the punishment. This is unfair. The question here is: is it the appropriate way to achieve peace by increasing the sufferings of prisoners and their families?
Shobaki said that only the unconditional release of all prisoners will be an acceptable basis for peace and pointed to the 6000-strong hunger strike as evidence that Palestinian prisoners are determined to fight to the end to achieve this.
The special commission on prisoners has yet to report its findings. On July 12, at a meeting between PLO and Israeli officials, Nabil Sha'ath, chief PLO negotiator, insisted that the Israeli's release the remaining 800 of the original 5000 prisoners agreed in the Cairo accord. Israel has refused claiming that the 800 had refused to sign the oath.