WEST BANK — There was a clown-car moment on a hill outside Hebron, in the West Bank, when the buses appeared on the road below: People were so excited, they first piled into their cars to drive down to meet the buses, then piled out again when they saw the buses moving surprisingly fast up the hill toward them, honking and studded with newly released prisoners hanging out the windows.
“Here! Here! Make the bus stop here!” shouted the crowd waiting on the hill, as they flooded into the road.
They banged on the door of the first bus until the driver opened up, letting men step off to be clamped into one fierce hug after another.
“How do I feel? Like gold,” said one man, grinning, after embracing his friend Sa’id Abed, a high school science teacher who was getting out after 22 months in an Israeli prison as an “administrative detainee” — meaning he was never charged with a crime.
This is the second time in the last several months that Israel has released a large batch of Palestinian prisoners. Each release has triggered a manic-depressive outpouring, among Palestinians, of euphoria, rage, apprehension and apathy. Each release has also been a very different bargain, with different winners, but the clear losers have been the same both times: the vast majority of Palestinians.
Abed, the science teacher, is one of 400 Palestinians — most of them administrative detainees like him — released by Israel at the end of January as part of a devil’s bargain with Hezbollah, a terrorist group in Lebanon. The bargain was this: Israel handed over the Palestinian prisoners and more than 30 other men it had been holding, plus the bodies of several dozen Lebanese nationals, and in return Hezbollah gave up the remains of three Israeli soldiers and one live Israeli businessman — all of whom the group had abducted.
Once again, just to be clear: That’s 430 prisoners released at the request of a terrorist organization, in return for three dead bodies and one guy.
Israelis were deeply ambivalent about the Hezbollah deal, and Americans should be too.
“This story does not have a happy end,” mused Israel’s pre-eminent political writer, Nahum Barnea, in a column about the swap. “It puts Israel in a strange position. Since September 11, 2001, America has been waging a war to the death against terror. This war dictates norms to other states: no negotiations with terrorist organizations. And here is Israel negotiating with a terrorist organization, compromising with it, and granting it legitimacy and prestige. It is possible to understand how this happened, but it is difficult to applaud.”
It’s possible to understand because Israel is a small country (only 6.3 million) where most citizens are required to do military service: Missing soldiers are everyone’s son, brother, father, uncle, nephew. For months, Israelis watched on TV as the families of the three soldiers who’d been captured by Hezbollah cried and refused to believe that the men were dead, even though the Israeli Ministry of Defense had declared them officially dead years ago.
The businessman’s daughter had a baby during the negotiations, and she pleaded in the papers for the deal to go through so her father could see his first grandchild. Even a scandal — the businessman might face prosecution in Israel for the allegedly shady business he was conducting in Lebanon when he was kidnapped — was only one more reason for Israel to hold its nose while still going ahead with the trade.
For different reasons, many Palestinians were also ambivalent about the deal. Some were thrilled, like Said Abed, the science teacher detained for almost two years. He’s 31 years old, hasn’t had kids yet and is eager to start a family.
“I was a new bridegroom when I was imprisoned,” he said, while another prisoner tried to climb out the window as the bus drove along. “They consider me a dangerous activist. I do not know what the charges against me were.”
He added: “I thank Hassan Nasrallah,” meaning the Hezbollah leader who organized the swap.
But other Palestinians, many of them family of the approximately 6,000 prisoners still in Israel, called the deal a “cop-out” and a “betrayal.” On a call-in show in Hebron, according to a story in Israel’s leftish newspaper Ha’aretz, some people were so incensed by what they saw as the puny number of prisoners being released that they demanded the following day be declared a “national day of mourning” to protest the deal. While the head of the Palestinian Authority’s prisoner-support division tried to soothe callers, they replied that almost three-quarters of the prisoners freed were due to get out this year anyway. They dismissed the Hezbollah deal as no more than a slightly bigger version of the prisoner releases Israel usually does around the Muslim holidays to ease prison crowding.
One caller went so far as to start cursing Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader who made the deal.
“For four months, we have been watching Nasrallah speak about the exchange deal and make promises, but he is no different from other Arab leaders,” he said before launching into his curses.
Palestinians’ favorite enemy, after Israel, is “other Arab leaders.” With good reason. Nasrallah, for instance, gained enormous prestige throughout the Arab world, including among Palestinians, for making this deal; everyone loves a man who can make Israel sweat. Yet neither Nasrallah nor any other Lebanese leader has seemed eager to make life better for the nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. They’re denied citizenship and are legally barred from working in more than 70 occupations. According to the U.N., at least a third are unemployed and many more are semiemployed, doing piecework in agriculture or construction. Lebanon has some of the best medical care available in the Arab world, but Palestinians there regularly end up fighting third-world diseases: hepatitis, typhoid, measles. It seems there’s no glory in making sure that a bunch of Palestinian refugees have a working sewage system.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the other prisoner release of the last several months — another deal that was supposed to be part of some grand scheme to make Palestinians’ lives better and was in fact just one more small drop in a very large bucket. Toward the end of last summer, Israel released 338 Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to then–Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. Careful readers will note that Abu Mazen got about 100 fewer prisoners released than were freed in the Hezbollah deal.
So Abu Mazen, who spoke out against terrorism and violence, and who was hand-picked by both Israel and the United States to be a reasonable leader for the Palestinian people, got fewer prisoners released than a terrorist leader who not only kidnapped Israelis to force a deal, but also vowed to kidnap more Israelis if he felt it was necessary.
Not surprisingly, the lesson that Palestinians and others are drawing from these deals is exactly the one Israel — and the U.S. — should dread.
“When Hezbollah used force, they released prisoners,” said Abed, the science teacher. “Israel only understands the language of force.”
When I asked Abed if he’d ever believed Abu Mazen could free him, he made a face that said, “No way.”
“I didn’t have any hope, because they always automatically renewed my detention,” he said. That’s when he thanked Hassan Nasrallah.
The collapse of Abu Mazen’s government was greeted with a shrug by most Palestinians, who, after all, hadn’t elected the man. But for the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, it represented a major and dangerous failure — for which Israel was partly to blame.
An uproar ensued in Israel when Lieutenant General Moshe “Bugi” Yaalon (an odd feature of Israeli political life is that very macho men often have adorable nicknames) gave an interview this fall in which he said that part of the reason Abu Mazen had been forced to resign was that Israel had been “stingy” with him. The West Bank and Gaza were now “on the verge of collapse,” he told Israeli reporters.
Yaalon said that Israeli closures and curfews had damaged the olive harvest and other agricultural production — the only livelihood for many Palestinians. He said the easing of restrictions on Palestinians’ movement was always being put off — next week, after the holidays, not now. Palestinian areas that hadn’t launched terrorist attacks in previous months, such as Jericho and Bethlehem, were punished along with places that had, such as Nablus, so there was no incentive for Palestinians to impose either societal or police pressure on militants to stop attacking Israel, he said. By the time Israel agreed to transfer control of three cities to Abu Mazen, he had no credibility left with his people, and the temporary cease-fire he had engineered was about to fall apart. It was too late.