PIJ website visitors to brainstorm with us on how to overcome obstacles and improve on an innovative idea of high relevance to our leadership’s peace negotiations.
On the one hand, all sectors of Palestinian society consider the release of prisoners held by Israel a top priority and are particularly frustrated by unmet promises. Palestinian families often demonstrate en masse demanding the freedom of their loved ones.
On the other hand, most Israelis choke on the risk involved and consider release both unwise and unjustified. Israelis fear unlocking prison doors that restrain bomb-makers, stone-throwers or challengers of the military occupation. They especially balk at giving in to what they consider blackmail - exchanging prisoners to recover soldiers who have been illegally kidnapped.
This recurring impasse has serious consequences such as slowing down the current Annapolis peace process. Business-as-usual promotes a zero-sum game, so civilians and academics on both sides have searched for an imaginative solution.
As we are Palestinian and Israeli academics, and one of us is now experiencing the challenges and limitations of official diplomacy, we understand the difficulties involved and the significance attached to this issue. Yet we also see an opportunity to build new relationships between old enemies. Our proposal draws on suggestions from Second Track Diplomacy workshops in Maryland, Goteborg, Bethlehem and Beit Berl, which included participants from ex-prisoner organizations.
We propose a paradigm shift from punishment to prevention. Rather than assume that a previous crime is a behavioral forecast, we opt to focus more on how to preclude released prisoners from the repeated use of violence.
Instead of a large-scale release of prisoners in response to demands of Hamas' military wing, we propose adapting Israel's current parole system, weighing through individual interviews, and generating a regular, ongoing, equitable and well-organized system for handling early release of Palestinian detainees. Pragmatically, the key lies in developing a reliable screening procedure ensuring, that, those jailed throughout this conflict, both Arab and Jew, will not return to violence after they are released.
Our proposal has two parts. First, we propose that screening be conducted by a series of parole boards composed of Israeli professionals: social workers, criminologists, prison authorities and a Palestinian observer. The first to be considered for early release should include the elderly, the sick, the very young, women and those who have served the longest terms. Hundreds of cases could be handled each month.
Second, an essential ingredient must be a serious commitment by prisoners to refrain from violent acts. An in-depth dialogue should determine the prisoner's willingness to renounce violence. Then the prisoner must take an oath documented visually and in writing and sworn over a symbol of faith: the Koran, since Arab prisoners are overwhelmingly Muslim and profound believers, or a Bible. Procedures must be standardized for both Arabs and Jews.
Prisoners should be given time for reflection. The notion must be instilled that struggling for self-determination is legitimate, but the use of violence against civilians is not. They must also understand that their parole will be revoked and that they will face additional punishment if they return to violence.
Once released, with the help of the international community, the prisoner should be offered vocational training, jobs and social rehabilitation, including help adjusting to a changed environment.
To make this proposal a reality, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government must act jointly, providing another test of mutual trust and commitment to the peace process. This cooperation may result in confidence-building measures, further reduce the overall level of hatred and perhaps keep other family members from engaging in armed struggle.
In back-channel negotiations, armed Palestinian organizations should be asked to prove their commitment to the priority of prisoner release by stating publicly that the pledge over their holy book is to be respected.
It is relevant to note that some of the Palestinians conducting negotiations today, who are now accepted as legitimate partners in peace, were once prisoners themselves. The record shows that the release of long-term prisoners has resulted in minimal recidivism.
This approach offers a win-win solution if both sides embrace it seriously. For the Palestinian Authority, it may result in a higher number of releases over time, as well as diminish the chance of reverting to violence. For the Israelis, it might contribute to the release of the soldiers kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah, without directly connecting it to a formal capitulation to kidnappings.
But if the only purpose of a symbolic and tightfisted prisoner release is to buy a momentary respite from fighting, then a profound opportunity will have been lost. If Israelis and Palestinians have the courage to try something new, they may take a first step toward reconciliation, long-term communication and respect.
This article has been edited and further developed with the permission of the authors and originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on August 26, 2006.