This week marked the beginning of a long-awaited prisoner exchange that will free 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners and one Israeli soldier. While many in the United States, including Yishai Schwartz ’13 (“A beautiful absurdity,” Oct. 17), have celebrated the release of the soldier, the freed Palestinian prisoners have been neglected. But the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners has been celebrated in Palestinian communities around the world. To them, the imprisonment of Palestinians is one facet of Israel’s 44-year military occupation.
The world knows that Gilad Shalit was a young man when he was captured, but who were the Palestinian prisoners? The Israeli and American presses have romanticized Shalit, despite the fact that his capture was unremarkable: He was wearing a military uniform and carrying a weapon in a conflict zone. At the same time, the press has universally characterized Palestinian prisoners — minors among them — as criminals or terrorists, whether they were civilians or combatants.
Many of the Palestinians imprisoned by Israel were unarmed civilians. In fact, hundreds of Palestinian children have been arrested for throwing stones at armored vehicles in protest of the occupation. According to B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights organization, “at least 835 Palestinian minors were arrested and tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing” between 2005 and 2010.
It is true that some of the Palestinian prisoners are suspected of involvement in armed activities, but it is also true that Israel has not granted them their right to a fair trial in accordance with international conventions. According to B’Tselem, there were approximately 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons at the end of August 2011. Many of them are held under “administrative detention,” a euphemism for imprisonment by military officials without trial. Further, according to Amnesty International, Palestinian detainees are “routinely interrogated without a lawyer and, although they are civilians, are tried before military not ordinary courts.”
While American and Israeli officials routinely voiced concern about Shalit’s treatment, little concern was paid to the documented mistreatment of thousands of Palestinian prisoners by Israeli forces. Amnesty International reports “consistent allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including of children” and Israeli courts’ acceptance of “confessions allegedly obtained under duress … as evidence .”
These abominable conditions have driven Palestinian prisoners to numerous hunger strikes, including a three week strike that ended only recently. Palestinian prisoners continue to demand an end to solitary confinement, the ban on books and college education in prisons, inhumane treatment and torture, dismal sanitary conditions, the persistent denial of family visits and inadequate medical treatment for ill prisoners.
In this context, the fact that many in the United States value the freedom of one Israeli soldier more than the freedom of 1,027 Palestinians continues a long tradition of disparity and injustice. Twenty-six of the Palestinian prisoners released this week have been incarcerated since before the birth of Gilad Shalit. As observed by Toufic Haddad, a contributor to the online magazine Jadaliyya, 10 other Palestinian prisoners to be released in the swap — Sami Yunis, Fuad al-Razem, Uthman Musalah, Hasan Salama, Akram Mansour, Fakhri Barghouti, Ibrahim Jaber, Muhammad Abu Hud’a, Nael Barghouti, and Salim Kiyal — spent more time in Israeli prisons than Nelson Mandela spent on Robben Island, yet none of them is even the subject of a Wikipedia entry.
“In contrast,” Haddad notes, “Gilad Shalit, who has spent five years in captivity, is a household name in many western countries, holds honorary citizenship in three countries, and has Wikipedia pages translated into 23 languages.”
The 1,027 Palestinians freed by this swap will probably remain faceless and nameless to many, despite the fact that they have all been incarcerated in the context of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Yet I cannot help but think of them as they see their loved ones for the first time in many years.
I think of the ones Israel will immediately exile outside of Palestine or send to Gaza — an open-air prison — without any guarantees that they will not be assassinated. I think of when — or if — they will get to see their families, and of all those who have been left in Israeli prisons after the swap, and of their loved ones. Most of all, I think of the blatant bias and dehumanization exhibited by those who believe that Shalit’s freedom was worth more than the freedom of those 1,027 Palestinians and that of the thousands more that remain in Israel’s prisons.