Every time the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails is raised – regardless of how they are released, as part of an agreement with the Palestinian leadership or as part of a prisoner exchange – it sparks a row within the Israeli public. The same happened in recent days, with the release of 26 prisoners as part of the agreement to renew negotiations between the sides.
Due to the storm of emotions and Israeli opposition, in most cases there is no serious attempt to understand the meaning of releasing prisoners as far as the Palestinians are concerned, and there is no effective discussion on whether their release contributes to the peace process.
People in Israel don’t understand that there is a national Palestinian consensus on the issue of prisoners, who are perceived as freedom fighters willing to sacrifice their life for the homeland – no matter what they did, and even if they acted against the leadership's stance and will.
The people see them as heroes and victims of the occupation. When they are accused in Israel of committing acts of terror or of having blood on their hands, the Palestinians respond that the occupation is also an act of terror and the source of violence, and compare between the number of victims among civilians – children, women and innocent people – on both sides.
But the issue most Israelis are not aware of is the fact that the majority of freed prisoners join the efforts for peace after their release. Most of them believe in peace, are willing to do a lot to advance it, and are harshly criticized for that. They participate in activities which are unpopular among the Palestinian society, like meetings with parts of the Israeli public, including politicians and intellectuals, and believe that by doing so they are promoting the Palestinian issue and serving their people.
The Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are given the opportunity to learn the Hebrew language and get to know the Israelis up close. That may explain the participation of many released prisoners in activities promoting peace. The talk about released prisoners returning to violence is highly exaggerated and is aimed at creating an atmosphere against the release of additional prisoners.
The Israeli objection to the release of prisoners as part of the peace process helps bolster the radical elements among the Palestinians, those who argue that there is only one way that has proved itself – kidnapping Israeli soldiers and exchanging them for prisoners. As far as they are concerned, Israel only understands the language of force. This is not what those who see themselves as part of the Palestinian peace camp prefer, but we welcome any prisoner release in any form.
The planned release of 104 prisoners is a small step compared to what is required in order to reach real peace, but it's an important step in the eyes of the Palestinian public and therefore contributes to peace. Our hope is that US efforts will succeed in bringing the two sides closer and bridging the great gaps between them. Otherwise we will all face a very big problem.
Ashraf al-Ajrami is the minister of prisoner affairs in the Palestinian Authority and an active member of the Geneva Initiative