What does Trump’s deal mean for Palestinian prisoners?

Randa Wahbe

Ask any Palestinian and they will tell you about a brother, a sister, a cousin or a friend who was pulled out of their home by the Israeli military in the middle of the night and subjected to the torturous labyrinth of interrogation, military prosecution and internment, or held under administrative detention without charge under the pretence of incriminating “secret information”.

It is estimated that close to one million Palestinians have been detained since Israel was established in 1948.

Since 1967 nearly one-fifth of the Palestinian population and 40 percent of Palestinian men have been arrested and charged under the 1,600 military orders that control every aspect of the lives of Palestinians living under occupation. At the end of December 2019, there were at least 4,544 Palestinian detainees and prisoners being held in Israel Prison Service (IPS) facilities.

With so many Palestinians unlawfully behind bars, the release of political prisoners is undoubtedly crucial for ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Yet, less than one page was allocated to this issue in the 181-page document outlining US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace” plan.

In the plan titled “Peace to Prosperity”, dubbed by Trump as the “deal of the century”, Palestinians found nothing but familiar attempts to take away their most basic human rights and righteous national aspirations.

They perceived Trump’s deal as the latest chapter in the State of Israel’s racist and colonial plan to unilaterally control historic Palestine in its entirety and remove Palestinians from their homeland. For many Palestinians, the only difference between this “peace” plan and the most extreme Zionist proposals is that this one is being pushed not only by the racist leaders of a settler colony, but also by an incompetent and dangerous American administration.

Palestinian political prisoners, who have either been left out entirely or reduced to bargaining chips in past political resolution attempts, also found nothing new in the plan which promised them neither freedom nor justice.

The plan’s brief section on the future of Palestinian prisoners attempts to draw naysayers in by conceding that some eligible Palestinian political prisoners will be released in two phases following the signing of a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. According to the document, the first phase is to occur “immediately after the signing of the deal”, while the timing of the second phase is left to be determined by the two parties at a future date. The document goes on to declare that any additional prisoner releases will be based on Israeli consent.

This is a tried and failed strategy.

In the summer of 2013, as part of a US-brokered deal to restart Middle East negotiations, Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving prisoners in four phases. Many of these prisoners were convicted long before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and should have already been released under the terms of that deal.

Israel initially released 78 pre-Oslo prisoners in three batches. But in April 2014, to punish the Palestinians for gaining greater recognition by the United Nations, Israel announced that it would not release the final batch of 32 prisoners. They remain incarcerated to this day.

Just as it was with the 2013 deal, Trump’s new deal has no mechanism to force Israel to keep its word and guarantee the freeing of prisoners.

The prisoners were being used as bargaining chips to make the Palestinian leadership surrender their demands for freedom and recognition then, and the Trump administration is trying to use them for the same purpose today.

Moreover, the document outlining the latest “peace” plan stipulates that under the proposed deal former prisoners who are currently living in exile will be given “amnesty” and allowed to enter Palestine. For Palestinian prisoners, and anyone else who has been following their decades-long fight for justice, this is another red herring.

In 2009, Israel amended Military Order 1651 (186) to allow the Israeli army to use “secret evidence” to revoke amnesties that were granted to former Palestinian prisoners who were released as part of past prisoner exchange deals.

This allowed dozens of prisoners to be rearrested and made to serve the remainder of sentences they originally received, many of which ranged from decades to life. As they were held on “secret evidence”, they were unable to defend themselves in courts.

The longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in Israel’s jails, 61-year-old Nael Barghouthi, is one of the dozens who have been rearrested under this order. Barghouti was first arrested by Israeli forces in 1978. After spending 34 years in prison, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel in 2011. He was, however, rearrested in June 2014 under the Military Order 1651(186). He remains in prison to this day.

We can and should expect that under the newly proposed plan, those released will be routinely rounded up and put back in jail – this is, after all, already happening.

The problems with the new plan’s proposals about Palestinian prisoners, of course, do not end there.

According to the “deal of the century”, Palestinian prisoners will be forced to sign a pledge “to promote the benefits of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, and to conduct themselves in a manner that models coexistence”, in order to be released.

Could any Palestinian make such a pledge? What does coexistence mean to the nearly one million Palestinians who have been arrested since 1948, whose only contact with Israelis has been at a barrel of a gun, at military checkpoints and during midnight raids in their homes?

What are these prisoners supposed to promote following their release, considering that many of them have been physically and psychologically tortured during their captivity, leading to permanent damage to their bodies and their souls? What about those who have had to endure life-threatening hunger strikes to gain basic necessities like family visits and medical care?

Finally – and here is the real kicker – the so-called “deal of the century” says no Palestinian prisoner will be released if “all Israeli captives and remains are not returned to the State of Israel”. As the Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over Gaza, and consequently over most of such exchanges, this clause almost guarantees that the prisoners will remain incarcerated.

Here, it is crucial to note that the remains of more than 300 Palestinians are currently held by Israel in closed military zones. Families have long been fighting for the remains to be returned to them for proper burial. Israel has repeatedly denied their requests. In September 2019, the Israeli High Court ruled that Israel has a right to hold on to these remains to use in future political negotiations.

Do not be fooled by Trump’s attempts to gaslight the international community into believing that his “deal of the century” is benevolent towards Palestinian political prisoners. This malicious plan only aims to expand the ongoing mass incarceration and criminalisation of Palestinians who have long been used as political pawns both in life and death – but never treated as human beings.

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