With Ramadan less than a month away, tensions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are on the rise, palpable not only in the streets but also in Israeli prisons where thousands of Palestinian prisoners continue to be an active part of the national conversation. The Palestinian prisoner issue is among the most complex and emotive spheres of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, generating deeply entrenched positions based on conflicting narratives and a lack of understanding between the sides. It is therefore a matter that is worthy of close examination in relation to both current political dynamics and future peace negotiations.

Prisoners are one of the major factors of the conflict. When there is a political agreement, it will have come mainly as a result of the struggles of many Palestinian prisoners. There will be no political solution without solving the prisoner issue,” says Qadura Fares, Head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, member of the Geneva Initiative’s Palestinian leadership, and signatory of the Geneva Accord.
Since 1967, some 800,000 Palestinians have been subject to some form of detention by Israel. The sheer commonality of the prison experience generates a high degree of sympathy and support for prisoners. Few other issues command such consensus in Palestinian society. As such, prisoner resistance and solidarity has developed into a central feature of the wider Palestinian liberation movement.

“Prisoners and their families can legitimize or delegitimize any political solution through the wide support they enjoy in the society,” says Fares, who himself served 13 years in an Israeli prison and previously held the role of Minister for Prisoner Affairs.

The very existence of a Palestinian ministry dedicated exclusively to prisoner issues points to its deep societal significance. For decades, prisons have functioned as microcosms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prisoners have lobbied, organized, and embraced various forms of noncompliance – most notably hunger strikes – to protest unfair treatment and poor conditions inside Israeli prisons and to advance the Palestinian national cause. As such, Palestinian prisoners have become significant political players, and Israeli prisons have for decades provided the Palestinian streets with their national and ideological heroes.
“It is common for Palestinians who have served time in Israeli jails to come out as political leaders and peace advocates. They are realistic and pragmatic, and understand the nuances of Israeli politics and society,” says analyst Mohammed Daraghmeh, who like Fares and other members of the Geneva Initiative’s Palestinian leadership, left prison as one of the foremost peace advocates in Palestinian society.

“The status of prisoners in Palestinian society is comparable to the status of soldiers and military heroes in Israel – they enjoy broad public support and play significant roles in Israel’s political, economic, and cultural life. Prisoners are held in the same regard by the Palestinian public,” Fares explains. Israelis, however, view Palestinian prisoners through a singular lens – as terrorists who have perpetrated violent, sometimes deadly, attacks against Israeli civilians.

“Palestinians see prisoners as heroes, as those who have fought and sacrificed their freedom for the Palestinian cause. Israel sees them as ‘the enemy’. Their narratives about both the past and present are contradictory,” says Israeli advocate Talia Sasson.

While some Palestinian prisoners have indeed been charged with terrorist offenses, Palestinian civilians are increasingly detained under Israeli military measures which define security threats in a broad manner – such that nonviolent speech and political activism may also provide grounds for arrest and detention.
Israeli military regulations allow for Palestinian detainees to be held for up to 18 days without informing them of the reason for their arrest and without being brought before a judge. Detainees may then either be sent to an interrogation center for up to 180 days, held in custody pending trial, or placed in administrative detention for renewable periods of six months without charge or trial, a practice which rights groups say is used primarily to constrain Palestinian political activism.

sraeli military tribunals are presided over by IDF-appointed judges, and with a nearly 100% conviction rate, are considered to fall short of the international standards. “Palestinians are brought to IDF courts where the justices and prosecutors are the IDF, and where military orders are drafted by soldiers,” says Sasson. “Justices need to have a sense of objectivity and impartiality, but there is no objectivity here. There is a problem and we have to admit it.”

Within the Israeli prison system itself, the Israeli Prison Ordinance does not include any definition of prisoners’ rights and no clause guaranteeing a prisoner’s minimum standard of life. High-profile prisoners such as Hisham Abu Hawash, Marwan Barghouti, and Nasser Abu Humeid have drawn international attention to humanitarian conditions and prisoner rights through their activism, and the fates of these prisoners hold the potential to escalate or de-escalate tensions in wider Palestinian society. Thus, the treatment of detainees during their incarceration has become its own battleground. At the center of this battle is the PA’s practice of offering financial support to prisoners and their families.
And while Israel demands that the PA terminate the policy as a pre-requisite to peace negotiations, Palestinian analysts say it would be practically impossible to do so without a political solution. “Any change to the law without a political solution might result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority,” says Fares. You can’t revoke the prisoners’ law at a time when Israel continues building settlements and undermines the two-state solution.” Mohammed Daraghmeh concurs: “Without a meaningful peace process, the PA cannot justify halting the funds. Palestinians would undoubtedly take to the streets."

The political, economic, and social complexities enmeshed in the Palestinian prisoner issue have made it one of the most intractable aspects of the conflict. “When you are not dealing with peace negotiations, the matter of Palestinian prisoners becomes one of the problems,” Talia Sasson says.

The prisoner issue will ultimately only be resolved as part of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the Geneva Accord, which sets forth a plan for the staggered release of Palestinian prisoners. In the meantime, there is significant work to be done in bridging the gaps in the narratives and understanding between the sides on this and other crucial issues to lower the potential for an explosion until a just and lasting solution is achieved.
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The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is part of the Two-State Coalition project produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.

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