With resolve, yet with wisdom



August 17, 2004

Some 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners (out of about 4,000) began a hunger strike yesterday in protest over the refusal of the Prisons Service and the minister of public security to meet their demands. They want an improvement of prison conditions and the abolition of interrogation methods that they consider humiliating. Israel has much more serious complaints against them: Many have been convicted of acts of murder and terrorism, and others have been jailed for other serious crimes against people and property.

However, the authorities will be making a mistake if they get into an emotional and unreasoned struggle with this large prison population. There is no place for one-upmanship in the Israeli response to the strike. Israel must first and foremost act with wisdom and common sense.

Not even one of these characteristics was evidenced by Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi's statement that from his point of view, the prisoners could strike "until they starve to death." The large number of security prisoners is a matter that should not be discussed during the present conflict. Among the thousands of prisoners are not only Palestinians who are being punished after they used violence against Israelis; there are also those who are perceived in the Palestinian community as symbols of the national struggle. In this sense, they must be dealt with intelligently and in consideration of the future relationship between the two peoples.

The prisoners are demanding, among other things, the removal of the glass partitions between them and their visiting families, and additional visitation permits. They want the humiliation of nude body searches, especially in front of other prisoners, stopped. They want public phones in the prisons, air conditioners and permission to study in Arab and foreign universities. Some of the demands are groundless, for example, allowing computers in the cells; the prisoners cannot possibly be serious about these. But their other demands should be considered. Conditions of incarceration should not be a punishment added to that which has already been meted out.

Thousands of Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons over the years. While inside, they have learned Hebrew and the prisons, as is the case in foreign jails, became their terror schools. Just as security officials at the highest level have concluded that "the terror barrel has no bottom," so the assumption that more severe prison conditions will necessarily produce a better outcome in the war against Palestinian terror is pretentious.

A fact well known in countries that imprison leaders of undergrounds and national liberation movements must also be remembered: Many were leaders before their imprisonment, and many others walked out of prison as leaders.

In the long-term, there is no great wisdom in the acts of a government that creates hatred and unnecessary bitterness behind the walls of its prisons. There is also no point in solutions being considered at present, such as force-feeding prisoners, a measure that will play into the hands of the strikers in the struggle for world opinion.

The right way to deal with the demands of the Palestinian prisoners should be to take into consideration the complexity of the matter; not for the sake of those many whose crimes are unforgivable, but for the sake of the long-term interest of Israel in this ongoing struggle.