Palestinians, especially prisoners’ families, are following with a great deal of interest (and sometimes jealousy) the relatively successful public relations and media campaign by family and friends to obtain the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
When hearing the sincere expressions and words of his family, especially his father and mother, many Palestinians can easily identify with them. They wonder, though, whether his mother understands that in the same instant, thousands of Palestinian mothers are having the same feelings.
What Shalit’s family and friends might not be able to understand is that the Palestinian prisoners are in jail for a just cause. They are fighting for freedom and independence. Shalit, on the other hand, was part of an army and state involved in the ugly illegal occupation of another people’s land. This difference, which may not be obvious to Israelis, is apparent to not only Palestinians but a growing majority of the world public.
There is more than one aspect to this issue. One is political, another is humanitarian. On a humanitarian level, we all would like to reach a time when suffering stops, beginning with an end to imprisonment of people on both sides of this conflict. Until then, everyone should work on improving the humanitarian condition of all these prisoners. Perhaps the best way to do that is to respect international conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war, which Israel has refused to do.
The other aspect is political. As long as this illegal occupation continues, there will unfortunately be continued suffering, especially by the weaker side of the conflict: Palestinians. The only way to end the suffering of people on both sides is to end the conflict, which would require a willingness from Israel to end its control over another people’s lives and land.
The prisoner issue is one of the most significant aspects of the conflict simply because it has impacted, in a long-lasting and unforgettable manner, the majority of the Palestinian population. Over the last 44 years of occupation, thousands of Palestinians have passed through the Israeli prison system. This affects not only them, but their families, meaning that a majority of Palestinians have either been arrested themselves or had an immediate relative detained in Israeli prisons.
For those who don’t know and might be deceived by the public relations statement of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he will stop allowing "benefits" for Palestinian prisoners, such as academic access, it is important to note that torture has been practiced regularly by Israeli interrogators. This practice has ended the life of many Palestinians and has been studied and condemned by international human rights organizations. The irony is that the Israeli system itself discussed the practice and decided to continue to allow "moderate physical and psychological pressure" during interrogation.
Ending this conflict would require a release of all prisoners. In the meantime, the priority is to start a process of gradually reducing the number of prisoners in Israeli jails, including a possible negotiated exchange that would release Shalit. This should also include the easing of conditions for Palestinian prisoners and their families, who are subject to humiliating treatment and sometimes deprived of visits.