Netanyahu’s Prisoner Gamble

Xinhua is reporting that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has revoked certain “privileges” of Palestinian terrorists in Israel’s prisons. The exact extent of the move is not yet clear–the only concrete element is that they will not be able to earn academic degrees while in prison, which is certainly a privilege and not a basic right. Netanyahu has stated that the reductions will be in compliance with Israeli and international laws on the treatment of prisoners, but that prisoners will be afforded no privileges beyond that. The move came in response to Hamas’ announcement that it will not allow the Red Cross to visit Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier that they have been holding since 2006. The 5th anniversary of Shalit’s capture falls on Saturday, so Netanyahu surely wishes to show Israel that some kind of progress is being made. However, he has chosen a risky path. The status of prisoners associated with politicized movements is always an issue of contention. Consider, for instance, the infamous H-Block hunger strike by members of various Irish Republican paramilitaries, which created a political crisis in the United Kingdom as several prisoners starved to death. That was over a minimal distinction in legal status. If the militants in Israel’s prisons feel they are being treated unequally, even if the treatment is not abusive and is within international norms, they could begin engaging in similar behavior and give Israel its own crisis. Additionally, Israel will lose a potential rhetorical point in the international arena–what Israeli diplomat, when confronted with, say, the widespread allegations that prisoners have faced torture in interrogations, would not love to be able to “brag” about prisoners receiving doctorates on Israel’s dime?

However, Netanyahu might be making a wise move. If the Palestinian prisoners do feel that they’re being “mistreated” by their downgraded status, it would give him a new bargaining chip to offer in exchange for Shalit, one that could see Shalit return without the large numbers of prisoner releases Hamas has demanded.

The fact that Netanyahu is using a minor issue of prison policy to “pressure” Hamas on Shalit could be an indicator of the broader state of his thought towards Palestine. He could have ordered raids, airstrikes, or tightening of border controls in the name of forcing Hamas to comply. Perhaps the rumors are true that Netanyahu deeply fears the pending Palestinian bid for recognition at the UN–perhaps he is avoiding aggressive actions to put Israel in better standing going into a crisis.

Shalit’s five year imprisonment is a stark reminder for the West’s vocal handful of Hamas apologists, who see it taking a less violent, more political direction. Hamas has not threatened to kill Shalit like it had done with previous Israeli prisoners of war, but it has also held him for purely political reasons for half a decade, in gross violation of international laws and norms about the treatment of prisoners of any kind, especially including prisoners of war. Shalit’s captivity shows Hamas’ true face–it is an organization that will do anything it takes to further its radical cause.

A Hamas poster showing a fighter holding a picture of Gilad Shalit and calling for the capture of more Israeli soldiers, with reference to Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. (Image via Wikipedia).

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