Waging liberation in and outside Israel’s prison walls
18 January 2012
The success of internationalization can be gauged by the extent to which the issue or question concerned becomes a global concern. It means creating a situation on the ground which makes it impossible for the international system to continue shirking responsibility, or colluding with a dominant or powerful party in usurping the rights of a weaker victim. International mechanisms can then be brought into play to support the restoration of the victim’s rights and enforce compliance on the violator.
In such cases, justice is the victim’s most potent weapon to offset the power and repressive force of the dominant party — in this case, the racist colonial regime of Israel.
But there is a basic rule that has been proven and reaffirmed by every popular revolution and liberation movement: it is not sufficient for a group or people to be victims of injustice to earn the world’s solidarity. For the world to support them, these victims must not only be conscious of and committed to their rights but more importantly, they must resist their oppression and oppressors. The victims’ own steadfastness, defiance and struggle is key to transforming international sympathy into solidarity, in the sense of effective political action with a strategic horizon.
Internationalization lies essentially and primarily in activating and sustaining global popular solidarity, as well as acting to encourage official international bodies to assume their responsibilities.
A mobilized, energized and expanded worldwide solidarity movement can do much to influence governments, legislatures and media in countries and societies throughout the world, and put pressure on international and official bodies, to promote policy changes on two fronts: to support and strengthen the victims of injustice and their hopes of attaining their rights via a combination of their liberation struggle and international legality; and to weaken and isolate the oppressive and racist colonizer, subject it to sanctions and deny it legitimacy, with the ultimate goal being the dismantling of its repressive structures.
Liberate them nowYet the official Palestinian position on the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails serves to undermine their cause, which is a central component of our people’s liberation struggle.
The official stance, essentially, is that no final peace agreement with Israel will be signed until all prisoners are released from Israeli jails. In practice, this is a recipe for delaying and deferring the liberation of the prisoners indefinitely, and marginalizing the issue within the overall Palestinian agenda. Liberating the prisoners should mean liberating them now.
Israel went to great lengths to turn the case of one of its occupation troops who fell into Palestinian captivity into an international humanitarian concern, while demanding that the world view and treat its 7,000 Palestinian prisoners of freedom as “terrorists.”
Yet why does Palestinian official discourse defer to this twisted logic? Why does the party with justice on its side, the victim, need to make excuses for Palestinians defending their rights? Why employ apologetic language? When was the last time an official Palestinian voice was raised at the United Nations or European Union — or even the Arab League — to defend the Palestinians’ right, and duty, to resist occupation, colonization and displacement employing all means of struggle?
This same mentality recently prompted a senior Palestinian Authority official to raise the issue of “mutual incitement” and demand that Israel reactivate the joint committee supposedly dealing with this issue. How can a supposed representative of a people who are subject in their entirety to colonization, displacement and confinement accept any equivalence in this regard between the aggressive occupying oppressor and its victims?
This is directly relevant to the issue of the prisoners. The official Palestinian position on the international stage is to “condemn violence” and thus denounce acts of resistance against the occupation, while committing to close cooperation with the Israeli security establishment. What message does that send to prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails for tens of years, who took part in the liberation struggle and are paying the price for doing so? Doesn’t the official Palestinian stance negate their status as prisoners of freedom, national liberation, conscience and justice?
If a message is ever to gain international popularity or official traction, it must be clear and coherent. This is absolutely crucial for internationalization. The words and actions of Palestinian officialdom must be in harmony with those of the popular level, civil society and grassroots movements, and also with the international solidarity and support movement.
Palestinian leadership must not undermine solidarityThat is vital to avoid any repetition of the painful experience of the campaign in the UK to boycott Israeli universities as part of a wider academic and cultural boycott of Israel. This constituted an unprecedented and strategic escalation in the role and effectiveness of solidarity movements. Yet within weeks of the launch of the campaign, the PA’s Al-Quds University at Abu Dis concluded a cooperation agreement with the Israeli Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That dealt a blatant stab in the back to the worldwide movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
One must also question how much importance the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization really accord to the prisoners issue — in their international diplomacy and at the UN, in their meetings with the Israelis, and as a Palestinian national priority. It is impossible to justify their failure to press it as a central issue in political talks over the years, one that cannot be ignored and must be resolved as a condition of further progress.
Prisoner exchange deals cannot in themselves address the question as a whole. Awaiting a promised peace deal as the magic solution is an exercise in futility. Nor can the release of the prisoners be treated as subject to the Israeli legal system. The Israeli judicial establishment is an intrinsic part of the system that sustains and legitimizes the occupation and the racist state and whitewashes their crimes.
Yet the issue of the prisoners remains a core element of the conflict, and its outcome is determined by balances of power. The Arab revolutions are sure to have a decisive effect both on the regional power-balance and on the management of the conflict. In this context, internationalization provides a way of changing the rules of the game that have prevailed so far, and breaking free of their control.
Alternatively, the official leadership’s retreat from its role, and the accompanying decline in popular struggle, leaves the prisoners with few options other than to go on hunger strike. Yet this does not necessarily achieve even short-term or minor gains, let alone advance the cause of their liberation. There is a need for new forms of struggle to be devised within the prisons, and linked more effectively to the wider struggle and its strategic objectives.
Engaging civil societyThere is a huge and diverse array of Palestinian, Arab and international human rights and civil society organizations that are credible, competent and have a long and rich record of defending Palestinian rights, obviously including the prisoners’ issue. Palestinian organizations can collaborate with their counterparts around the world to press for policy changes in favor of Palestinian rights and establish networks of relationships.
Official Palestinian representative offices must also do more to facilitate such work, encourage grassroots input and engagement, and provide it with official support it. Decentralization and complementarity are required. Regrettably, official policy and behavior has all too often obstructed and conflicted with unofficial campaigning work. This was most apparent in the case of the Palestinian and international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel. Palestinian officialdom opposed it, citing the negotiations underway with the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert.
The task of internationalization should be entrusted to a National Coordinating Committee, including representatives of popular organizations and civil society along with officials, both from within historic Palestine and the Diaspora. The roles of all groups should be coordinated with the appreciation that the Palestinian cause is an indivisible whole, and that Israel too is one and the same. In other words, the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, the racist regime within the Green Line, and the uprooting and ethnic cleansing of the refugees and displaced, are all products of the Israeli state’s colonial and racist nature.
Re-evaluating strategy and prioritiesIn the process of managing the conflict, there are essential issues which must not be shelved or deferred. No Palestinian official or negotiator is entitled to sideline them in favor of other issues, even if results cannot be reached on all simultaneously.
A wholesale Palestinian and Arab re-evaluation is required of the chosen strategy of negotiating on the basis of achieving interim solutions, and the effect this has had on the Palestinians’ rights and their struggle to achieve them. The disastrous effect of the Oslo accords in this regard has become clear over the past two decades. By sub-dividing basic Palestinian rights into separate components, they were turned into hostages to each other and bargaining chips — the attainment of one package of rights made contingent on conceding another.
On the international level, it may sometimes appear that diplomatic gains can be made by prioritizing one set of fundamental rights — or one issue, such as the colonial settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem — over the others. But there is a risk of this seeming, both at home and abroad, to abandon those rights which, for whatever reasons, the current Palestinian leadership does not deem a priority. For example, the Palestinian official campaign to focus worldwide attention on the settlements carries the implicit message, inadvertently or not, that freeing the prisoners is not such a high priority.
No Palestinian official negotiator has ever been heard to threaten to halt talks with Israel unless the prisoners are freed, or even that a timetable for their liberation be discussed, or to raise the issue at the UN Security Council. This is due to a Palestinian political decision, or reluctance to take a stand given the prevailing regional and international balance of power. It reaffirms the disastrous legacy of the Oslo accords, in terms of both substance and implementation.
All issues related to Palestinian rights that were deferred under Oslo remain deferred, and look to remain so indefinitely. This applies to the issue of refugees and the displaced, and to Jerusalem. And that’s not to mention the Palestinian leadership’s tacit acceptance that the 1948 Palestinians are a domestic Israeli affair — a notion which they themselves, needless to say, utterly reject and resist by all means available.
With regard to the prisoners, experience shows that Israel does not adhere to its declared principle of refusing to release prisoners who were involved in actions in which Israelis were killed. The same applies to its refusal to negotiate the release of residents of Jerusalem of the 1948 territories. It is the balance of power that counts, and this is not a constant. It can change, largely in accordance with the level of Palestinian popular struggle, official Palestinian policy and the Palestinian will as a whole.
The cause of liberating the prisoners requires the struggle to be waged on two complementary fronts, within and outside the prison walls.
Ameer Makhoul is a Palestinian civil society leader and political prisoner at Gilboa Prison.
This article is co-published by Beirut-based al-Akhbar and translated from Arabic.