The joint Israeli-Palestinian committee for coordinating the release of prisoners from Israeli jails met for the first time on 14 March. The committee was established following the Sharm ash-Sheikh summit of 8 February, where Israel committed to releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from jail as a “goodwill gesture” to advance the peace process. The question of which prisoners should be released quickly became a point of contention with the Palestinian Authority, and Israel scaled back its planned release of 900 Palestinians to the 500 that were actually released on 21 February. The joint committee that began work on 14 March was established to prevent similar controversies occurring in future, by providing a mechanism for cooperatively deciding who should be eligible for release. Most importantly (from the PA’s point of view) the committee establishes the precedent that Israel’s “goodwill gestures” should be coordinated measures that really are designed to build confidence in the political process, rather than unilateral releases of petty criminals that have more to do with easing overcrowding in Israeli jails than improving I/P relations.
The Palestinian Authority of course welcomes the release of any prisoner from Israeli jails, but the fact that Israel periodically empties its jails of petty criminals and seeks to gain political capital by claiming these are goodwill gestures to advance the peace process is very damaging to the Palestinian government. For the last ten years, the P.A. has struggled to convince Palestinian society that an approach based on negotiations and cooperation with Israel actually produces results, in the face of opposition by rejectionist movements that say Israel regards the willingness to compromise as a weakness to be exploited, and makes substantive concessions only when it is forced to. (A position that is bolstered by the fact after four years of gruesome intifada Israel is talking about withdrawing from Gaza, whereas seven years of negotiating under the Oslo Accords produced not a single dismantled settlement and actually saw the numbers of settlers in the Occupied Territories double). Against this background, Abu Mazen’s ability to get the prisoners in Israeli jails released is a litmus test of whether the rejection of violence and reliance on negotiations alone can actually produce the goods on issues that matter viscerally to the Palestinian public.
In a society where about 50% of adult males have passed through the Israeli prison system since the Occupation began, the fate of prisoners is not a peripheral issue. Gideon Levy pointed out that this figure is similar to the proportion of eligible Israelis who serve in the I.D.F., and that the prisoner is to Palestinian society what the soldier is to the Israelis:
If for Israelis "the whole nation is an army," for the Palestinians the whole nation is a prisoner: Like the experience of military service for us - the experience of prison in the Palestinian ethos is the formative and unifying experience. Both serving in the military and spending time in prison are perceived as a model of values, a sacrifice for the sake of the homeland. The two experiences are connected to the sanctified violent struggle in the two societies.
-- A nation of prisoners, 22 Aug 2004.
So all prisoners are not equal when it comes to how Palestinians view prisoner releases. Some Israelis may think of all Palestinians prisoners as common criminals, but Palestinians themselves do not regard the fate of someone who was caught stealing cars as in any way comparable to that of a Palestinian who is jailed as part of the struggle against Occupation. And within that latter group, the fate of four types of prisoners is particularly important: the veterans (especially those who have served over 20 years); the chronically or terminally ill; the women; and the children. The extent to which “goodwill” prisoner releases can actually build Palestinian confidence in the peace process is directly related to whether they can deliver these prisoners who really matter, not just short-timers, common criminals, and those arrested for having the wrong permit or for committing some other political violation which – as Matthew Cassel notes - would not be even considered a crime elsewhere:
Currently there are over 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners inside Israeli prisons.
Palestinian prisoners are often charged with such "crimes" as throwing stones, putting up posters of martyrs, being at a demonstration, or being a member of a university student council that has any affiliation with any political party.
Inside occupied Palestine all political parties are illegal and anyone claiming to be a member, or even knowing a member can put you in prison.
Under Israeli military law, Abu Mazen, the leader of Fatah, who was just last week shaking hands with Sharon, could be arrested and put in prison. There was even one case where someone was arrested and charged with "military training" after telling a friend that he saw a documentary on the satellite channel, Al-Arabiya, about the history of missiles...
When the peace process produces unilateral goodwill gestures that liberate only these “smallest of the small fry”, as Israeli journalist Amos Harel describes them, Palestinians understand that this is a calculated insult to Abu Mazen and a rebuttal of his promise that negotiation and compromise can win concessions from Israel (including, ultimately, an end to the Occupation). The message they hear from such goodwill gestures is this: Hamas offers Israel nothing but Qassems and suicide bombers, and Israel gives up the Gaza Strip to them; Abu Mazen offers Israel a negotiated, comprehensive peace settlement, and Israel gives him car thieves.
The releases of 21 February were a good example of how much harm a unilateral “goodwill gesture” can do the P.A. The release of 500 prisoners might have been hailed in some international news coverage as a sign of a thawing in I/P relations, but was actually met by protest demonstrations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, because not one of the 500 prisoners released came from any of the four categories that are particularly important to the Palestinian street. Forty-four of those released were low-level Fatah members who had been jailed for involvement in (non-lethal) attacks on military targets during the current intifada, while the rest - the overwhelming majority of the 500 – comprised the usual suspects, i.e. common criminals; day labourers (like those in the photo, below) jailed for working in Israel without a permit; and administrative detainees (prisoners held without ever being charged with any crime). Most embarrassingly for Abu Mazen, most of the prisoners released were – as Knesset member Issam Makhoul pointed out – due to be released soon anyway. Even if the “goodwill gesture” had never taken place, 70% of the prisoners affected by it would have been freed anyway within eight weeks of the date of the prisoner release!
Backdropped by a banner by Israel's Tourism Ministry, Palestinian workers who were caught by Israeli forces trying to get into Israel to work, wait for their documents to be checked at an Israeli forces' checkpoint between the southern suburbs of Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Wednesday Feb. 16, 2005. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Israel’s primary justification for limiting prisoner releases to the small fry, is that it cannot release prisoners “with blood on their hands”, i.e. those involved in attacks on Israelis . The P.A. rejects categorically the separating out of prisoners “with blood on their hands”, especially by an Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon who – through his activities at Qibya  and Sabra/Shatila – almost certainly has more innocent “blood on his hands” than any Palestinian who ever set foot in an Israeli jail. The Palestinians also maintain that a country that has conducted a violent occupation of the Palestinian Territories for the last 38 years, and a government that has declined to prosecute or even investigate the killing of 2,500 civilians by the I.D.F. over the past four years – even blatant acts of murder - has no standing to claim that Palestinians with “blood on their hands” are automatically beyond the pale.
The Palestinians reject the argument that a whole class of prisoners should be excluded in advance from Israeli confidence building measures, and want every prisoner to be considered for release on a case-by-case basis. They accept that security concerns would be a legitimate reason to deny a prisoner release, but do not believe that a prisoner with “blood on his hands” is automatically a security risk to Israel today. For example, it is hard to believe that a Fatah member who was jailed for killing or wounding an Israeli twenty years ago, but who in the intervening years has supported the Algiers Declaration recognizing Israel and the two state solution, supported the Oslo Accords and the renunciation of terrorism, and who is now a respected and influential veteran prisoner who supports the Presidency of Mahmoud Abbas and the demilitarization of the intifada, is automatically a greater security risk to Israel that a young Fatah activist who carried out low-level preparatory work for an attack by other Palestinians during the current intifada. Yet, under the “blood on their hands” rule, the veteran prisoner is not eligible for release, while the young activist is. The experience of Northern Ireland  has been that senior former prisoners – both Loyalist and Republican - have an important role to play in building public confidence in the political process, and that if you really want to open “a new page” in the conflict – as the P.A. Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs put it - it does not make sense to collectively exclude them from prisoner releases.
Finally, the Palestinians argue that Israeli/Palestinian history is a history in which everyone has blood on their hands . When a final settlement is reached, the people that Israel negotiates it with will all be graduates of the Israeli prison system; and, like it or not, some of them - just like the Jewish “terrorists” who were imprisoned during the British Mandate period and went on to become leaders of the new nation of Israel - are going to have blood on their hands.
Mahmoud Abbas of all people is not going to settle for prisoner releases that exclude all the prisoners that matter, because he knows from personal experience during his sort-lived premiership of 2003 how severely Israel's unilateral "goodwill gestures" undermine the credibility the Palestinian government in the eyes of its constituents. Almost immediately after Abbas was appointed Palestinian Prime Minister in April 2003, the Israeli government aired its intention to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. For the international audience, the proposal was presented as a goodwill gesture to strengthen a new P.M. who was struggling to establish his legitimacy as the “anti-Arafat” who would disown militancy and establish Palestinian rights through nonviolence and compromise. But for the home audience, the Israeli authorities were quite open about the real motivation for the releases. For example, on 13 April:
Israel Army Radio reported that the General Security Service (GSS) had objected to a plan to release hundreds of Palestinian detainees as a gesture to Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas if he took "positive" actions. The radio noted that the idea had come from prison authorities as a way to reduce the overcrowding of prisons. (Source)
When the “goodwill gesture” actually took place on 6 August 2003, Israel released 350 Palestinians. One hundred were common criminals and labourers without work permits. One hundred and sixty-one were administrative detainees held without charge or trial. Of the remaining "security prisoners", none had been involved in very serious offences, and none had "blood on their hands": most were small fry, convicted of belonging to banned organizations, throwing rocks, or sheltering fugitives. One hundred and twenty eight of them had less than four months left to serve; thirty-one had less than a month to serve; ten were due to be released within the week. Abu Mazen’s teetering government was humiliated when it became apparent to the Palestinian public exactly who was coming home in the releases. The P.A. Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, Hisham al-Razak, responded furiously that if the only “goodwill gestures” Israel was capable of were unilateral ones that exposed the weakness of the Abbas government and its inability to gain any meaningful concessions through negotiation, then it would be better if there were no “goodwill gestures at all”, saying: "If that's your way of freeing prisoners, it would have been better had you left them all in jail and not released anyone."
And numerous Israeli commentators noted that no matter how the Sharon government tried to dress it up as a goodwill gesture to further the peace process, this release was a real setback for any Palestinian politician trying to convince his constituency that Israel is more responsive to moderation than to extremism. For example:
Israel's sole aim with the prisoner releases was to dupe the Palestinians and the Americans. A step presented as a goodwill gesture, and which provoked an endless number of inane arguments in Israeli society, was actually a slap in the face to Palestinians, and especially to Prime Minister Abu Mazen. With a "prisoner release" of this character, it's no wonder that Palestinian feelings of humiliation and frustration rose up.
-- Gideon Levy, Who violated the hudna?, 19 Aug 2003.
What should have been, as far as Israel was concerned, a confidence-building measure has turned into a move that destroyed the little confidence in Israeli intentions that had begun to develop on the Palestinian side after the appointment of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)...
The Palestinians hoped they would be made partners in the process of drawing up the list of detainees and expected a much larger number of prisoners and veteran inmates among them to be released, so they felt the government had made fools of them. Prisoners and detainees who were going to be released anyway were freed, joined by common criminals and day laborers illegally in Israel, looking for work.
-- Danny Rubinstein, Every day the hudna lasts is a miracle; 11 Aug 2003.
Things reached a ridiculous level with the release of 76 prisoners last Friday. These were criminal prisoners, mainly thieves and poor workers who were caught in Israel (some in East Jerusalem) without permits. The Israeli government did not conceal this, but did not stress it either. For its part, the PA announced it had not asked for the release of those thieves - in fact, it was even opposed to their release.
The government of Israel, in this case, is playing only with itself. We Israelis say that we're doing them a favor and debate whether the Palestinians are deserving of the favor now or whether we should postpone it - whereas in the Palestinians' eyes, it is beneath contempt.
-- Danny Rubinstein, Favours that breed contempt; 18 Aug 2003.
The day is not far off when Abu Mazen and his government will fall. It's only a matter of time. Then, Ariel Sharon will get Yasser Arafat back, and he will be relieved to be rid of Abu Mazen's moderation. Sharon always had huge difficulties speaking to moderate Palestinians, while he swims like a fish in a sea of Palestinian extremism. There's a problem with moderates. You have to encourage and strengthen them, offer them real proposals and make a real start on the famous "painful concessions." Sharon doesn't have any such intentions.
Sharon's behavior is not surprising to anyone who has known him for many years. The surprise is President Bush, who has evinced a strange passion for tall tales. It is completely unclear why the American president has decided to consume overflowing portions of complete lies served up to him by Ariel Sharon... Sharon told Bush that he was "releasing prisoners." He simply didn't tell the U.S. president that most of the soon-to-be released prisoners were close to completing their jail terms anyway. Not only does this release not strengthen Abu Mazen and his government, it actually weakens them, because it shows them up to be an empty vessel. Among this present group of prisoners is not a single one with symbolic value from the point of view of Abu Mazen's government, which is fighting for its life....
When Abu Mazen's government falls, and the bloodshed resumes, God forbid, Bush will have to answer some difficult questions, to go along with the difficult questions he already has to answer with regard to Iraq. President Bush is allowed, of course, to toy with his own political fate. But he may on no account toy with ours.
-- Yossi Sarid, Why Bush likes tall tales; 7 Aug 2003.
One month after the August 2003 prisoner release, Abu Mazen’s government collapsed. Outgoing Security Minister Mohammed Dahlan dismissed Israeli/U.S. conventional wisdom that Abbas was fatally undermined by the opposition of P.A. President Arafat. He argued instead that Abbas had lost public confidence when it became clear that Israel was no more interested in establishing a political process with a moderate Abbas-led government than it was in dealing with Arafat, and identified the prisoner release as one of the key indicators of Israel's attitude to Abu Mazen:
Israel has not only failed to help the government of Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen. It also did the maximum in order to cause its collapse. The reasons for Abu Mazen’s resignation are clear. Foremost of them is the fact that he could not secure from Israel a single achievement on the ground for our people…
Israel’s intransigence vis-à-vis release of prisoners, pullouts from the Palestinian cities or in any other sphere proves how [hypocritical] the Israeli government was in praising the government of Mahmoud Abbas on one hand and not giving in to any of its demands on the other. We have become experts in unveiling the true face of the Israeli government and that was exactly what we did in the outgoing government of Abu Mazen.
-- Interview with Mohammed Dahlan, Arabic Media Internet Network; 27 Sept 2003.
To make Abu Mazen’s humiliation complete, Israel made it perfectly clear just four months after his resignation that, when it is politically expedient for the Sharon government, “blood on their hands” need be no obstacle at all to prisoner releases.
In January 2004, Israel conducted its biggest-ever prisoner exchange with the Lebanese Shi’a militia, Hizbullah. Israel classifies Hizbullah as a "terrorist organization". Unlike the Palestinian Authority, it does not recognize Israel, and advocates armed struggle rather than negotiation as a means of ending occupation. Nevertheless, in return for one Israeli prisoner and the remains of three I.D.F. soldiers, Israel released to Hizbullah 23 Lebanese prisoners (including those jailed for incidents in which Israeli soldiers were killed), 12 other Arab detainees, and 400 Palestinians of all categories, including many who were in jail during Abu Mazen’s premiership, but had not been deemed suitable for release when Israel made its “goodwill gesture” to him. The prisoner swap with Hizbullah also envisaged a second phase, in which Israel – in return for information about the fate of its long-missing I.A.F. navigator, Ron Arad - was willing to release the longest-serving Lebanese in Israeli custody, Samir Qantar, a PFLP member in his 25th year of a 542-year sentence imposed for his 1979 murder of an Israeli family.
So Israel's inability to release prisoners with "blood on their hands" turns out to be a movable feast. The unbending principle that consistently prevents meaningful releases to the Palestinians apparently becomes unexpectedly flexible in dealing with Hizbullah. The message that Israel will release high-value prisoners to Hizbullah as a response to violence and hostage-taking, but not to the P.A. to help re-establish the peace process – was quickly picked up on by those who support armed struggle. For example, Kareem Kamel noted approvingly that:
...the prisoner swap threw into sharp relief the futility of all “peacemaking” efforts in the region, and the importance of resistance and steadfastness. It is interesting to note that neither the short-lived government of Mahmoud Abbas, nor Ahmed Qurei’s current administration - with all their regional and international connections - managed to negotiate large scale prisoner releases or secure any meaningful compromises from Israel.
Hizbullah’s message of defiance not only discredited the Palestinian Authority (PA), but also showcased the fact that the path of resistance, rather than wholesale compromise, is capable of achieving results on the ground.
-- Hizbullah: Vanguard and Liberator, IslamOnline; 4 March 2004
And within 24 hours of the swap, Hamas announced that it too would adopt Hizbullah's strategy of using Israeli hostages as leverage for prisoner releases:
GAZA CITY, Gaza - The leader of Hamas said Friday that his group is making every effort to seize Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails. The declaration by Sheik Ahmed Yassin came a day after a prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah. Israel released more than 400 prisoners, the vast majority Palestinians, in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers...
Yassin said he believes Israel will only free Palestinian prisoners under pressure. "There is no solution to the prisoner issue except with the kidnapping of soldiers of the enemy and exchanging them with our own prisoners," he said.
-- Hamas threatens to kidnap Israeli soldiers, MSNBC; 30 Jan 2004.
On the other side, commentators in Israel and Lebanon wondered what exactly was the message that the Israeli government was trying to send in its divergent treatment of Sheikh Narallah’s Hizbullah and Abu Mazen’s P.A.:
Many Israelis are accustomed to saying that the Arabs only understand one language, the language of brute force, and maybe they are right. But what language do we understand, if not the same exact language?
We only began to talk with the Egyptians after the Yom Kippur War, and not a day sooner. Now there's no longer any doubt that it would have been possible to talk peace with the Egyptians before the hostilities broke out, but the boldness wasn't there yet, and we waited... We also refused to talk with the Palestinians, for 20 "normal" years, until the first intifada reared up its ugly head at us, and at them... And when did we finally withdraw from Lebanon? Only after the Hezbollah pummeled at us every day and Israeli society was incapable of absorbing the blows any longer....
And now the most dubious deal of all - if it is possible to free 450 prisoners of all types, why didn't we free them to Abu Mazen, and thereby prevent the collapse of this moderate and sensible man? Even the chief of staff admitted in a flash of honest revelation, that Israel played a substantial role in the defeat of Palestinian moderation... But no. The people of Israel is determined to strengthen the number one terrorist in the Middle East, Hassan Nasrallah, and turn him into a popular hero. The people of Israel is determined to prove that Nasrallah's are the most effective and constructive methods, and anyone who wants to vanquish the "Zionist enemy" - ought to learn from him.
-- Yossi Sarid, For whom the bells toll, 3 Feb 2004.
[O]ne thing is patently obvious: Hizbullah and Israel, as much as they would refuse to admit it, are as one in seeing the deal as an opportunity to discredit the Palestinian Authority (PA) and derail Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. For Nasrallah, the exchange speaks to the virtues of taking a hard line on Israel, which can only encourage militant Palestinians to do the same. Sharon was willing to go along for several reasons: anything that makes Palestinian President Yasser Arafat look bad is fine with him, and Arafat’s inability to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners has been a black mark on the PA...
The overall impact a deal will have is unclear. However, Hizbullah will certainly be strengthened, allowing Israel, paradoxically, to build up a threat it can later point to as a reason why it should be so hardnosed with its enemies. Sharon is also effectively ensuring that 200 Palestinian militants (if the figures are to be believed), many of whom might one day return to the Occupied Territories, will, in the interim, fall under Hizbullah’s thumb. This could give the party the entry it seeks into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is shortsighted, to say the least. Sharon may be thinking it will buy Israel time to expand settlements and build his separation wall. But what Israel is really doing is further emasculating the only potentially conciliatory Palestinian interlocutor it has, namely Arafat. It’s a shame that Hizbullah should agree to be a part of this.
-- Michael Young, Collusion that dares not speak its name; 27 Sept 2003.
So, after the experience of the prisoner releases of August 2003 and January 2004, it is understandable if Abu Mazen of all people is wary of the harm that phoney goodwill gestures can do him. But there's one more reason why P.A. rejects utterly the argument that Israel cannot in principle release any Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, and it's the simplest reason of all. The fact is that the Hizbullah deal was not a one off: Israel regularly does release armed extremists with blood on their hands after minimal or reduced jail time, and has been doing so for decades. Here are just a few of the violent militants for whom "blood on their hands" was no obstacle to early release:
Name: Daniel Pinto
Crime: While serving with the I.D.F. in south Lebanon in 1978, he imprisoned and tortured four Lebanese peasants for several days, before binding them hand and foot, strangling them, and dumping their bodies in a well.
Sentence: Twelve years imprisonment.
Served: Pardoned by the Israeli Chief of Staff after serving two years.
Name: Ze'ev Wolf and Gershon Herkovitz, members of extremist organization Kahane Chai.
Crime: Threw grenades into the butcher’s market of Arab East Jerusalem in July 1993, killing 70-year-old Abdel Razeq Dkeidek, and wounding ten other Palestinians.
Sentence: Ten years’ imprisonment.
Served: Pardoned by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and released in October 1997, after serving four years.
Name: Yoram Skolnik, settler from Kiryat Arba.
Crime: Shot and killed Palestinian prisoner Mousa Sulaiman Abu Sabiha as he lay blindfolded and bound on the ground, in the Sweisa neighborhood of Hebron on 23 March 1993.
Sentence: Life imprisonment for premeditated murder.
Served: Sentence reduced to 15 years by a Presidential commutation in 1997. Received a second commutation from President Weizman in 1999, reducing his sentence to 11 years. Released in March 2000, after serving eight years.
Name: Israel Lederman, member of extremist organization Kahane Chai.
Crime: Shot dead a Palestinian civilian outside the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem in 1978.
Sentence: Twenty years.
Served: Pardoned by the Israeli Chief of Staff after serving three years.
Reoffended: Threw boiling water over leftist M.K. and prominent peace and gay rights advocate Yael Dayan, causing second degree burns to her neck and chest, during her visit to Hebron on 22 Oct 1996.
Sentence: Three years.
Served: Released after serving two years.
Name: Noam Friedman, settler from Maale Adumim.
Crime: Opened fire on Palestinians in Hebron’s vegetable market, wounding six people (two critically), on 1 January 1997. Carried out the attack in order to stop Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations over the future of Hebron.
Sentence: Discharged from the I.D.F. and committed to Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem after a military court ruled on 27 Feb 1997 that he was medically unfit to stand trial.
Served: Less than two months after Friedman was declared medically unfit, the Israeli Health Ministry announced in April 1997 that, miraculously, "[h]is condition has improved", allowing him to leave hospital twice a week to study, and to spend weekends “on vacation at his home” (JPost, 14 July 1997). He was released altogether in September 1997, six months after being committed.
Sentence: Acquitted in district court by an Israeli judge who rejected the incriminating testimony of eyewitnesses who saw Korman beat the child to death, and of the Israeli state pathologist who testified that Shusha's fatal injuries were caused by a beating. The court instead accepted Korman's defence that the child had fractured his own spinal cord and incurred a cerebral haemorrhage by falling over and banging his head. Korman was convicted of Manslaughter on appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court, but the case was returned for sentencing to the judge who had originally acquitted him. For beating a 12-year-old Palestinian child to death, she gave Korman a plea-bargain of six months community service and a $15,000 fine in January 2001.
Served: Eight months in prison while awaiting trial.
B’Tselem noted: The Court's decision to accept the plea bargain is a direct continuation of the policy of all Israeli law enforcement agencies - from the police and the IDF, to the State's Attorney's Office and the Courts, and including the Presidency. Throughout the years, all these institutions have turned a blind eye to cases where Israelis injure innocent Palestinians, and have even supported them. This policy stands in blatant contradiction to the authorities' treatment of cases where Palestinians injure Israelis. In the latter cases, the justice system is suddenly highly efficient and employs all means at its disposal, including measures that violate human rights...
This incident is one of dozens in which Israeli civilians killed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. B'Tselem conducts a comparative study of all these cases, which paints a disturbing picture: many cases are never even investigated by the Police; others that are investigated, the State's Attorney's Office decides not to file indictments; the few cases that do reach the courts end in acquittal or in light sentences. In those isolated incidents where a serious sentence is imposed, the President commuted the sentence.
-- B'Tselem, Palestinian Life Continues to be Cheap; 22 Jan 2000.
I'm sorry about the graphic before-and-after pictures of Hilmi Shusha, but that’s what it looks like when you put your foot on the neck of 12-year-old and pistol whip him about the head till you fracture his spine and leave him in an irreversible coma. I don't include those photos gratuitously, but to make it plain that the violent killers who walk free from the Israeli justice system after minimal punishment are not peripherally involved in violence, but have personally committed some of the the worst kinds of offenses that would put them into the category of prisoners with "blood on their hands". Of course the difference between these murderous extremists and the murderous extremists who are systematically denied early release to the P.A. is that all those I have highlighted are Israeli extremists, and the blood on their hands is "only" Palestinian blood.
It is sheer hypocrisy for Israel to say that "blood on their hands" automatically excludes prisoners from early release, while Israeli prisoners with Palestinian blood on their hands walk free from jail (if they are unlucky enough to even be investigated and prosecuted in the first place). This is why the P.A., and Palestinian society in general, utterly rejects the Israeli categorization of prisoners into those who have "blood on their hands" and those who don't. Because to accept that Palestinians with blood on the their hands are by their very nature unfit for release, while Israeli killers of innocent Palestinians go free, is to accept the murder of an Israeli is a crime of a greater magnitude than the murder of a Palestinian, and that the blood on the hands of a Palestinian murderer is somehow redder than that on the hands of an Israeli.
 Israel also categorizes a second group of detainees as ineligible for inclusion in prisoner releases, namely Palestinian prisoners from East Jerusalem. Several dozen veteran prisoners in Israeli jails are Palestinian Jerusalemites who have been imprisoned since the first intifada. They have been systematically excluded from Israeli "goodwill gestures", not because their crimes are more serious than those of prisoners who were released, but because Israel does not wish to acknowledge that East Jerusalem is occupied terriritory, and fears that releasing Jerusalemites to the P.A. might be taken as a recognition of the Palestinian claim to sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem.
 Qibya is a Palestinian village located near the cease-fire line which separated Israel from Jordan before 1967. On the night of 14-15 October, 1953, the village was attacked by Israeli commandos, following at attack on a Jewish family in Yahoud (though there was no evidence that anyone in Qibya was involved in that attack). The Israeli commandos, led by then-Colonel Ariel Sharon, blew up 45 houses in the village, killing 69 civilians inside. Two-thirds of the dead were women and children. Sharon claimed that he had no idea anyone was in the houses. The UN observer who inspected the scene came to a different conclusion, reporting: One story was repeated time after time: the bullet splintered door, the body sprawled across the threshold, indicating that the inhabitants had been forced by heavy fire to stay inside until their homes were blown up over them.
 Alina Korn discussed the positive effect of large-scale prisoner releases on the peace process in Northern Ireland, and urged the Israeli government to learn from that experience and carry out a generous release of Palestinian prisoners. Korn is right to highlight the transformative effect that opening the prisons can have in promoting reconciliation and winning broad support for a negotiated settlement, but doesn't draw from that the obvious conclusion that that is precisely why the current Israeli government will never agree to such a thing.
The difference between the Good Friday agreement and and the current I/P situation is that in Northern Ireland widespread prisoner releases were a confidence-building element in a wider package leading, ultimately, to resolving the final status of Northern Ireland by granting self-determination (by means of a referendum) to the people who live there. In contrast, the current Israeli government is not seeking to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, because this would mean ending the Occupation, a price that P.M. Sharon is absolutely not willing to pay. It hopes instead, by jettisoning Gaza and enclosing the Palestinians of the West Bank, to reorganize the Occupation in a way that makes the ongoing conflict easier to manage. By his own admission, Sharon's disengagement plan was designed not as a first step on the road to a political settlement, but rather to ensure that final status issues between Palestinians and Israelis never come up for negotiation, and are thus never resolved co-operatively. When a government is seeking to freeze and manage a conflict, rather than resolve it, the very last thing it needs is to carry out transformative confidence-building measures that build public support for a political settlement.
 "It is not ethical for any Israeli - for any Israeli in a nation where everyone has to serve in the army apart from the Haredim - to talk in terms of people with blood on their hands. God Almighty, you must look in the mirror! We haven't been playing games for the past 50 years." - Saeb Erekat to Amira Hass: The Settlers Are A Daily Threat; Ha’aretz, 23 Aug 1999.