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How Prisoners Can Lead to All-Out War with Gaza

Updated: May 8, 2023

The treatment of prisoners is a critical aspect of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has significant implications for both parties. It is a complex issue affected by various factors, such as political and legal status, affiliation, and actions. The fate of prisoners can escalate or de-escalate violence, affect prospects for dialogue and negotiation, and even trigger an all-out war. This article explores the role of prisoners in the conflict, the types of prisoners, the humanitarian issues related to their conditions, and the potential they have for contributing to the peace process. By examining recent events, we can see how the treatment of prisoners on both sides can have devastating consequences and even lead to war.

To understand the role of prisoners in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is crucial to consider both the detained Palestinians and Israelis. Since 1967, Israel has detained over 800,000 Palestinians, while Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, has also held Israeli prisoners. For Palestinians, prisoners are an important symbol: “The prisoners have their presence in all Palestinian life and they deserve from us all loyalty and continuous work to relieve them and their families because they sacrificed years of their youth for the freedom of Palestine,”

For Israelis, prisoners are also a source of anguish and controversy: Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, has been holding two Israeli civilians who are believed to be alive and the remains of two Israeli soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. Israel has demanded their release as a condition for any major deals on Gaza, but Hamas has insisted on a prisoner swap involving hundreds of Palestinians, some of which are notorious terrorists charged for large scale attacks against Israelis.

The number and proportion of these prisoners, often called security prisoners, varies over time depending on the political situation and the level of violence in the conflict. The fate of these prisoners can significantly impact the escalation or de-escalation of hostilities between Israel and Gaza, as well as the prospects of dialogue and negotiation between the two sides.

Specifically, the death of prisoners can have severe and far-reaching consequences, as it can trigger violent reactions and escalate tensions to the brink of combat. Security prisoners are often seen as symbols of resistance and sacrifice by their communities, and mistreatment or death can spark outrage and retaliation.

Khader Adnan is an excellent example of the delicacy of security prisoners regarding the wider conflict. Adnan, a leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, died in Israeli custody on May 2, 2023, after a hunger strike lasting nearly three months. Adnan was arrested in February 2023 and charged with "involvement in terrorist activities" by an Israeli military court. Still, he refused to recognize its legitimacy and went on a hunger strike to protest his detention.

His death sparked a general strike and protests in the West Bank and Gaza, where Palestinian factions denounced it as a "deliberate assassination" by Israel. The same day, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired over 100 rockets into southern Israel, prompting the Israeli military to respond with airstrikes and tank fire. The Israeli reaction killed one person and injured five others in the coastal enclave. The exchange of fire was some of the most intense since an 11-day war in 2021 between Israel and Hamas.

Another instance is Hamas's capture of Gilad Shalit during a cross-border raid in 2006. The incident triggered a major Israeli military operation in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, that lasted for three weeks. The violence throughout the intense period of conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 1,166 Palestinians, including more than 400 civilians, and 13 Israelis, including three civilians. Shalit became a national icon in Israel throughout his captivity, and his release was a top priority for the Israeli government and the public. The Shalit family and supporters held numerous protests and rallies demanding his release, including a 12-day march from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem in 2010. The Israeli government tried several times to negotiate for Shalit's release, but talks repeatedly broke down over disagreements about the number and identity of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange. In October 2011, a deal was finally reached between Israel and Hamas for the release of Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis. The deal was widely celebrated in Israel, also sparking controversy and criticism over releasing Palestinian prisoners with "blood on their hands."

Hunger strikes are a form of nonviolent resistance that turns the captive's body into a weapon to challenge the oppressor's power and attract attention and sympathy from the public and the international community. As mentioned in the example of Khader, prisoners also instigate conflict using hunger strikes. The strikes are used as a tool of protest against their detention conditions, their treatment by the authorities, or their political demands.

A well-known example of how hunger strikes can instigate conflict is the case of Marwan Barghouti, a senior leader of the Fatah movement and a member of the Palestinian parliament. An Israeli court sentenced Barghouti to five life terms for his role in the second intifada. During his detention, he led a mass hunger strike in 2017 involving more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to demand better conditions and an end to administrative detention. The strike lasted 40 days and ended with an agreement that Israel would meet some of the prisoners' demands.

The release of prisoners can play a role in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It can serve as a confidence-building measure and goodwill gesture that facilitates dialogue and reconciliation. Ultimately, prisoners also serve as an important bargaining chip for peace. However, many challenges arise in negotiating the release of prisoners, such as the criteria for selection, the timing and sequencing, the security implications, and the public reactions.

In the case of the Wye River Memorandum, an agreement signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1998, one of the agreement's provisions was that Israel would release 750 Palestinian prisoners in three phases in return for security measures by the PLO. The prisoner release was intended to boost the credibility of the PLO leadership and create a positive atmosphere for further negotiations. The Palestinians complained that 150 of the 250 prisoners released in the first phase were common criminals and that the Wye agreement stated all should be political prisoners. The prisoner release, intended to boost the credibility of the PLO leadership and create a positive atmosphere for further negotiations, did not lead to a breakthrough in the peace process and was ultimately written off as a failure.

As seen in the examples mentioned above, the issue of prisoners has great potential to cause significant conflict or even spark an all-out war with Gaza. In the cases involving Khader Adnan, Gilad Shalit, and Marwan Barghouti, prisoners' treatment and fate can potentially trigger violent reactions and turn the prisoners into symbols of resistance. The release of prisoners can also serve as a confidence-building measure and a gesture of goodwill in the peace process, as seen in the case of the Wye River Memorandum. However, it's critical to do these actions cautiously to ensure that the releases don't go unjustified. It is crucial to address the issue of prisoners comprehensively, taking into account the legal, political, humanitarian, and security aspects of the conflict, to prevent a potential escalation of violence in Gaza. A just and lasting solution for all parties involved is necessary.

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