Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinian Prisoner Day

The announcement by Hamas’ military wing that it is holding four Israeli soldiers captive has raised speculation on a possible new prisoner exchange deal, or Israeli military action, writes Ahmed Al-Sayed in Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the Israeli war on Gaza in summer 2014, a slow-burning war has been underway between the Israeli occupation authorities and Hamas over missing or detained Israelis held by the Islamist movement, which controls the Gaza Strip.

As the second anniversary of the war approaches and Palestinians are preparing to commemorate Prisoner Day on 17 April, the announcement in early April by Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, that it is holding four Israeli soldiers stirred the waters and revived the hopes of the families of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons for a prisoner exchange deal, along the lines of the Shalit deal in October 2011.

Observers believe that the aim of the announcement was to strengthen Hamas’s position on the Palestinian and Arab fronts, and achieve a political victory with a hoped-for release of Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.

But there are other reasons that Hamas may have made the declaration. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told journalists in late March, in an attempt to ease the mind of the soldiers’ families and the Israeli public, that he had learned of “an important development” regarding Israeli soldiers missing in Gaza. This may indicate that he is working on the issue without Hamas, meaning that he will offer nothing in exchange for the soldiers.

Analysts say that the psychological war between Al-Qassam Brigades and Israeli intelligence has heated up. This conflict is mostly silent, conducted largely through images and political messaging that is only partly understood by occupation forces. The lack of clarity confuses the Israelis and gives Hamas a leg up in negotiations.

On 1 April, Al-Qassam Brigades announced it was holding the four Israeli soldiers and denied that it was in communication with Israel about the soldiers’ fates. The spokesman for Al-Qassam Brigades, Abu Obeida, gave a brief speech aired on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa channel on the evening of 1 April, with photos of the four Israeli soldiers displayed in the background.

“Netanyahu is lying to his people, misleading the public, and deceiving the families of his imprisoned soldiers,” Abu Obeida said. “There are no communications or negotiations underway thus far on the imprisoned enemy soldiers.”

He added: “The enemy will receive no information about these four soldiers without paying a clear price before and after negotiations.”

Abu Obeida’s speech confirmed that the four captive Israeli soldiers are Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Hisham Al-Sayed (a Bedouin Arab) and Avera Mengistu (a Jew of Ethiopian origin).

At a rally on 5 April in front of the Khan Younes home of Hamas leader Hassan Salameh, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, Hamas’s public action office raised photos of the four soldiers along with another photo of a question mark, suggesting that Al-Qassam Brigades is holding a fifth, unnamed, soldier.

On 20 July 2014, Al-Qassam Brigades announced it had captured Israeli soldier Oron Shaul while engaging Israeli ground troops east of Gaza City during the 51-day Israeli war on the Gaza Strip.

Israel has accused Hamas of holding the body of officer Hadar Goldin, killed in an armed clash east of Rafah City on 1 August 2014. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied the charge.

On 9 July 2015, the Israeli army announced that an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, Avera Mengistu, had disappeared after losing his way in the Gaza Strip in September 2014. Claiming that he is being detained by Hamas, Israel has demanded his return. Israel also announced the disappearance of soldier Hisham Al-Sayed, an Arab resident of the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev Desert. Israel claimed that he crossed the border into the Gaza Strip by mistake as he is mentally unbalanced.

Commenting on Al-Qassam Brigades’ announcement on the Israeli prisoners, Palestinian political analyst Hamza Abu Shanab said that the Netanyahu government is in crisis over soldiers missing in Gaza and avoids discussing the topic, fearing its fragile coalition could collapse.

He added that Netanyahu was forced to address the issue during his meeting with journalists, where he said that he had obtained an important report on the soldiers. Abu Obeida’s speech thus revived Israeli interest in the subject. Although the impact of the speech was limited, it builds on previous developments and may spur the families of Israeli prisoners to press for further action by their government.

Abu Shanab said that the announcement was timed to cut short Netanyahu’s vague talk and demonstrate that the resistance, not the occupation, has the real facts. Broadcasting the photos of the soldiers recalls the photos of the captured Shalit and sends the message that time is not on Israel’s side.

According to Abu Shanab, the family of Hadar Goldin has still taken no action. The family is considered to support right-wing, nationalist policies, and is reported to have voted for the far-right Jewish Home Party, which opposes the two-state solution, supports the settlement enterprise, and is key to the stability of the current Israeli government. If Goldin’s family does take action, it could have negative consequences for Netanyahu, who is considering running for another term of office.

The issue of prisoners is one of the most important in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian National Council — the parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organisation — affirmed in 1974 that 17 April would be a national day to commemorate prisoners and their sacrifices. Since that time, Palestinians at home and in the diaspora have marked the day, joined by people in numerous Arab and European capitals.

The Israeli occupation authorities are detaining some 7,000 Palestinians in 22 prisons and detention centres in inhumane conditions and in violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions, according to statistics issued by the Prisoner Affairs Agency (previously the Ministry of Prisoners) and several rights centres.

The agency says that occupation authorities have arrested some 850,000 Palestinians, among them 15,000 women and tens and thousands of children, since 1967. The experience of detention has touched all segments of Palestinian society without discrimination — children and the elderly, girls and women, the sick and disabled, workers and academics, and MPs and ministers, as well as political and union leaders, students, writers and artists.

Hamas says it will conclude no exchange with the occupation unless it fulfils the terms of previously concluded agreements. Hamas has set two conditions for any negotiations. First, Israel must release prisoners freed under the Shalit deal who were again detained by Israel after the kidnapping and killing of three settlers in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, in June 2014. Second, the prisoner negotiations must be separate from any other issue, such as lifting the siege.

Occupation authorities detained some 70 people who were freed under the terms of the Shalit deal, and re-sentenced another 34 prisoners, some of them to life, according to the Prisoner Affairs Agency.

Hamas and Israel concluded a prisoner exchange on 18 October 2011 under Egyptian auspices. A total of 1,027 Palestinians were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

Hamas refuses to disclose the condition of the four captives and whether they are dead or alive, intentionally remaining vague to confuse and pressure the Israeli government, and provoke Israeli public opinion, as it did in the run-up to the Shalit deal, in the hopes of concluding another exchange.

Observers say that the Qassam broadcast put the far-right Netanyahu government in a predicament, setting it up for a confrontation with the Israeli public.

The Hebrew-language media heavily covered Abu Obeida’s speech and his release of the four soldiers’ photos, and accused Hamas of attempting to rattle Israelis with the issue of missing soldiers.

Israeli Channel 2 described the publication of the soldiers’ photos as “an attempt to provoke Israelis” and play on their feelings. The channel said it was another tactic aimed at turning the Israeli street against Netanyahu.

The channel titled its coverage of Abu Obeida’s speech “A Hamas Manoeuvre: We Have Four Soldiers”.

Channel 2 reporter Yaron Schneider said that in airing the video Hamas is again seeking to deceive Israel, engaging in a brutal psychological war and sending new threats.

“Hamas is trying to incite the Israeli public against Netanyahu,” said Rami Yitzhar, the editor of Inyan Merkazi, an online news site. “Hamas is attempting to clone the popular pressure brought to bear on Netanyahu during negotiations for the Gilad Shalit exchange deal.”

Analysts believe Israel could approach the issue in several ways. It could continue to ignore it or minimise its significance in a bid to compel Hamas to relax its conditions for negotiations and make them less costly for Israel. Second, it might urge Arab and regional parties with influence over Hamas (Turkey, Egypt or Qatar) to push for an exchange in return for certain accommodations unrelated to the release of prisoners. Finally, it could launch a military campaign against the Gaza Strip, as it did after Shalit was captured.

The Al-Majd Al-Amni website, which is considered close to Hamas, says that the Israeli occupation will not resort to another prisoner exchange without first exhausting all security and intelligence channels. Israel did the same thing in its failed search for Shalit, which gave Hamas experience in thwarting these attempts. Defeating Israel in the Shalit case, Hamas scored a major victory with the prisoner exchange deal.

“The Zionist enemy will naturally pursue new means, or at least repeat its previous efforts to find Shalit’s location,” the website added. “On the security front, it will likely use random phone communication with residents of the Gaza Strip in an attempt to entice them with money in exchange for information about one or more these soldiers. It will also upload websites to receive information on the captured soldiers in exchange for high financial rewards.”

It continued: “The enemy will also unleash its agents to search, question, investigate and observe. It previously scoured dumps and trash heaps looking for any thread leading to Shalit. This is not an exceptional method, but an indispensable means the enemy uses to obtain information.”

According to the website, the enemy’s need for any information about its soldiers may lead it to mount security operations aimed at abducting military field commanders, as it did most prominently with Mahawish Al-Qadi in eastern Rafah. Qadi was kidnapped to gain information about Shalit, but preparations by the resistance thwarted such attempts.

The Al-Majd Al-Amni website did not rule out Israeli military action with the objective of taking the soldiers or killing them if it pinpointed the location of one of them, to reduce the price it would pay in an exchange deal.

The Israeli far right refuses to pay any price for the release of Israeli soldiers. The Israeli Knesset passed a law to prevent the release of any Palestinian prisoners that Israel considers as having blood on their hands.

These far-right forces are seeking to amend the penal code to make it enforceable in military courts and thus applicable to Palestinians who carry out killings in the framework of their resistance to the occupation, in an attempt to cement the Israeli narrative that these Palestinians’ struggle is a crime and that they are killers and terrorists.

The Israeli Penal Code allows the death sentence in two cases, for Nazism and high treason, but these two provisions currently do not apply to Palestinians residing in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.

In this context, in late March the Israeli ministerial committee for legislative affairs discussed a bill drafted by the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, that would allow the execution of prisoners. The bill received the support of members of other Israeli parties.

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