HUMAN RIGHTS: Shalit Freed, Palestinians Under Duress

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By Ernest Corea*

WASHINGTON DC - The prisoner-for-prisoners exchange agreement between Hamas, the Palestinian organization that holds sway in Gaza, and the Government of Israel, demolishes the argument that Hamas cannot be included in any negotiating process "because it is a terrorist group."

For the record: the Government of Israel agreed that in exchange for the release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who was abducted and held captive by Hamas for five years, 1027 Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons – many for periods of well over five years – would be released. The exchange began on October 18 when Shalit returned home as did 477 Palestinians held prisoner in Israel. The final stage of the exchange is scheduled to take place in a month when over 500 Palestinian prisoners are due to be released.

The agreement was reached after protracted negotiations between the two parties. In their most recent phase, Egyptian officials and a publicly un-named German served as intermediaries.
Thus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's imperious claim that Palestinian Authority president Mohammed Abbas had to choose between partnering with him or with the Hamas leadership now stands exposed as yet another effort to avoid entering into significant peace negotiations.

No wonder President Bill Clinton, commenting on the currently stalled US-sponsored peace talks, said that "a key reason there has been no Israeli-Palestinian peace deal" is the existence of the Netanyahu government.

Neither the Government of Israel nor Hamas can plausibly claim now that seemingly intractable problems cannot be resolved through negotiations if the political will to seek resolution exists on both sides, and negotiations are carried out in good faith.

Peace process

From UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon reacting to the exchange, to Shalit appearing over television in Egypt shortly after his release, hopes have been expressed that the exchange will lead to a continuation of positive developments. Ban described the agreement as a "humanitarian breakthrough" and suggested that it could lead to a revival of the peace process. Shalit said: "I very much hope that this deal will advance peace."

Will it?

Emotional outbursts immediately before and after the exchange began were not encouraging. In Israel, the day before the exchange, courts were filled with angry supporters of petitions seeking judicial intervention to prevent the exchange. The courts did not oblige. On the political front, it was said that the exchange was a one-off deal and would not be repeated.

Reactions from the Hamas side were equally unhelpful, with returned prisoners declaiming that more Israeli soldiers should be abducted in order to seek the release of all Palestinians in Israeli jails. Other harsh words were said as well.

These may be ignored as irrational reactions to an event that caused happiness, but raised concerns. The larger issues – nurturing the state of Palestine, and bringing peace and security to the region – await resolution.

The Middle East Quartet (EU, Russia, UN, and US) are said to be pursuing the resumption of bilateral peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel.

On the Palestinian side, the Quartet itself is somewhat suspect as an interlocutor because some of its members have been less than supportive of efforts by Palestinians to seek multilateral restitution through the UN, when they were convinced that the Government of Israel was an uncooperative partner in the bilateral peace process.

Flouting laws

The Netanyahu government continues to initiate or approve more and more settlements on Palestinian land, despite an international legal opinion that such construction is illegal because it contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which prohibits an occupying power from moving any of its own civilian population into occupied territory.

Netanyahu, moreover, has demonstrated his contempt for a presumptive Palestinian state by arguing in advance for shackles to be placed on the state’s eventual operations.

He has demanded that a Palestinian state should be totally disarmed (while co-existing with a militarized neighbour), that the air space over Palestine should be under Israeli control (surely a case of air piracy), that Israel would have full control of Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Palestinian state would also have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in advance, thus eliminating for all time any further discussion of the future of dispersed Palestinians longing for a return to their homeland.

To acknowledge that Netanyahu's caveats are illogical, and render negotiations directed at securing their realization meaningless, is not to let Hamas off the hook. Hamas cannot help in nation building efforts, and in creating a regionally and internationally recognised Palestinian state, if it seeks to do so through tactics that include civilians, both adults and children, as its victims.

The fact that it has been confronting a militarized, occupying power does not give Hamas an escape hatch through which to get away from its own responsibilities.

Practical approach

Three years ago, Efrain Halevy, Israel's former intelligence chief, interviewed by Mother Jones magazine, said that for pragmatic reasons it made sense to bring Hamas into negotiations. When he was asked whether Hamas should be required to recognise Israel's right to exist before Israel would talk with it, Halevy replied:
"Israel has been successful in inflicting very serious losses upon Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank and this has certainly had an effect on Hamas but this has not cowed them into submission and into accepting the three-point diktat that the international community has presented to them: to recognize Israel's right to exist; to honor all previous commitments of the Palestinian Authority; and to prevent all acts of violence against Israel and Israelis.
"The last two conditions are, without doubt, sine qua non. The first demands an a priori renunciation of ideology before contact is made. Such a demand has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestine Liberation Organization/Fatah. There is logic in the Hamas' position that ideological ‘conversion’ is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation."

The same three-point "diktat" was repeated by State Department deputy spokesman Mark C. Toner on Oct. 18. No mention was made of Halevy’s experience-based assessment.

Child victims

Major issues that continuously cause tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually discussed in political, diplomatic, and constitutional terms. There is another perspective that cries out to be taken into account as well and this was highlighted by the UN Secretary General when he reacted to the prisoner-for-prisoners exchanges in humanitarian terms.

He could be expected to do so, for only the UN maintains a continuing record of the humanitarian tragedies that are imposed on Palestinians by Israeli occupation, blockades, and so on. These records show that every aspect of Palestinian life is affected and that children, in particular, are hapless victims.

For many Palestinian children, says the UN's Special Committee to investigate Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the territories occupied since 1967, "….life is difficult and the future is hopeless."

The committee’s assessment was based on testimony concerning "worrying health, psychological and social problems, increasing school dropout rates, and an increasing incidence of child labor." (A full account of the grim details may be accessed at www.un.org)

International commentators frequently proclaim the need to ensure Israel's security. Indeed. Palestinians need security too: food security, health security, educational security, and others that together provide a full life for adults and children. Palestinians cannot achieve these conditions while living under duress.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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