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News of Hamas-Israel prisoner deal met with apathy in Ramallah

Palestinians based in Ramallah are giving little attention to the issue of prisoners and the recently announced prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel. This may be a product of apathy and politicization of the issue

Prisoners' families in downtown Ramallah (photo: Omar Rahman)

Despite what some might have imagined would be a joyous celebration for Palestinians, the imminent release of over a thousand prisoners provoked little public reaction on the streets of Ramallah. People largely went about their business Wednesday morning as the news from the night before settled in among other issues of the day.

Walking into a downtown cafe to get my morning coffee, the proprietor only shrugged his shoulders when I asked his opinion on the matter. “I have too many of my own problems to think about at the moment,” he noted offhand.

Less than fifteen meters away a couple tents laden with pictures of prisoners are set up on the sidewalk of one of Ramallah’s main squares. Only a handful of activists sit in plastic chairs discussing the low turnout, and plans for the day’s activities. One girl points out to me a photo of her brother, imprisoned by Israel on a 30-year sentence.

The organizers had thought many more people would join them in the day’s general and hunger strikes planned in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners, who have been on a hunger strike in Israeli jails for over two weeks. One man remarks that the prisoner exchange dampened the momentum behind the solidarity strike.

“I think the exchange is good,” says Hasan Kharijeh, whose sister will likely be released  as part of the deal. “But there are many more people that will remain in prison that need our support.”

Activists will head over to the Red Cross building in Ramallah, and are expecting a much bigger turnout there, especially when prisoner families join in. Yesterday, there were reportedly a thousand people collected in front of Ofer prison located in the West Bank.

Ramallah is a far cry, however, from the thousands that reportedly flooded the streets in Gaza last night as Hamas celebrated their victory. Prisoners are supposed to constitute an issue that cuts across partisan lines, since Israel arrests Palestinians without regard to color or stripe. Every Palestinian family has or has had a member (and likely many more) in Israeli jails.

Yet the political motivations behind the exchange may also be playing a factor in people’s public responses. Security officers from the Palestinian Authority–which was sidelined by the Hamas deal– look out onto the group of protesters in Ramallah. Plain-clothed members of the intelligence service can be seen on each of the corners of the square where the tent protesters had set up shop.

“They want us to know they are keeping an eye on us,” says Kharijeh, pointing out frequent intimidation by security forces. “The PA is against our collective response to prisoners. They don’t like us taking a stand on these issues.”

It is apparent that what was once an issue of solidarity for Palestinians, has also become politicized in some respect.

“It is clear this is a strategy by Hamas to control the situation and pull support away from [Mahmoud] Abbas,” says Addie Awwad, from the West Bank town of Birzeit, who notes that overall the exchange is good for Palestinians. “After a failure of their policies in the past, Hamas wanted to drag the general public opinion back to them.”

Awwad’s thoughts echo prevailing suspicions about why the deal was struck at this particular time.  Some speculate Hamas and the Israeli government are trying to undermine Abbas at a time when he is garnering domestic and international support for his statehood bid. Others believe the embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is staving off his political adversaries by chalking up a win on a popular issue.

Others like Kharijeh believe that the Israelis are trying to undermine the prisoner’s hunger strike. “If some prisoners start dying in the Israeli prisons, it will spark another intifada,” says Kharijeh. “The Israelis know this.”

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    1. DeeDee

      I totally agree, being an activist in this part of the world sometimes feels like banging your head against the wall.

      Israel on one side, brainwashed people and PA or political faction people on the other. It’s irritating yet the hope is not gone. Some of us are out there and the number is slowly growing!

      Reply to Comment
    2. AYLA

      @OR–this is really interesting, thank you. I’m really surprised that the prisoner issue doesn’t elicit solidarity today, since like you said, every Palestinian family has had family members in Israeli prisons, and in an unjust system. I have questions that I’m not sure I know enough about to articulate well, so forgive me, and forgive me if you’ve actually answered them in your article and I didn’t get it. Is there actually popular solidarity, but the PA is repressing it, and if so, because it’s a Hamas win? Or do the people genuinely not feel excited about prisoner release, and if so, I’m not sure I understand the nature of why, yet (also because it’s a Hamas win?). I also thought that there was great solidarity around the citizens of Gaza, who are celebrating and have family coming home? Are we to understand that the divide between the parties is outweighing all else? Also, it seems to me that the deep distrust of Israel is most apparent in the speculation that Israel and Hamas are conspiring together to undermine Abbas, which seems very unrealistic to me, unless this is one of those areas in which I’m about to have my naive mind blown, once again. Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    3. @AYLA – thanks for your response. Many good questions and there is no shame in asking. To be honest, I was very surprised by what I saw and I did not want to make an indictment here but just relate what I observed one morning in Ramallah. I believe there is a lot of solidarity around the issue of prisoners, historically, more so than any other issue. It is something that has and still marks the lives of every Palestinian family. Indeed, speaking to a friend last night over this article he said I understand Palestinians in Ramallah not making a big deal over the issue. He said, most of us are just tired of politics and the issue of prisoners (of which he has several cousins in prison right now) has become numb because it is so pervasive. That is not to say people were not happy and welcoming of the release. But the motivation to keep fighting on behalf of prisoners has waned in the same way fighting for all other issues among Palestinians has waned, largely from exhaustion.
      That being said, I think the political situation and the divide between Fatah and Hamas is playing a role. Repression from the PA is only something that was related to me through one of the individuals I talked to that morning. But on larger scale, there is certainly a wide understanding that this deal had political motivations for Hamas, with real political implications in terms of mass appeal. For those that support Fatah and the PA, although its good to have prisoners released, the fear of growing support for Hamas and weakening support for the PA, is worrisome.
      One last point. From a personal point of view, what does this prisoner exchange teach us? That capturing an Israeli soldier leads to the release of a thousand prisoners; while a cozy relationship with the Israeli security establishment leads to the release of not a single prisoner, in fact, just the opposite, the PA arresting Palestinians on behalf of Israel. Sorry for so many words, i hope i answered your questions.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AYLA

      @Omar–Thank you so much. My palestinian friends say the same thing about being exhausted, tired of fighting, and have relayed that that’s general mood. And, yeah, the take-away lesson that you expressed is, to me, scary, and sad. We should be doing a lot better at diplomacy. I don’t think it’s possible with the system as it is (not just the judicial system; the occupation, the whole thing). We need radical changes, way off the chess board that’s being played on by the powers that be. Sami Awad says the answer is mass, peaceful protests with both sides together, and I agree. But that numbness is on both sides, too. And on the Israeli side, it’s coupled with an ability to live in relative freedom and comfort, which can make people sleep. The world is waking up, though. I find that the worst and best of everything is right here, on our little sliver of land. It’s up to us, how the scales tip. Thank you. (also, you’re new here if you’re apologizing for so many words to *me* 🙂 ). I trust we’re both fast typists :). Take care.

      Reply to Comment
    5. It could have been possible for the PA to be the mediator between Israel and Hamas, if Palestine were in fact united, if Hamas in fact accepted the continuity of Palestinian governance (even if only a commitment into the future).

      Although some are declaring that Hamas is the large beneficiary of this deal (certainly in the majority of freed prisoners), the PA can still position itself as the representative of the Palestinian people for negotiation.

      For Israel there is again restored an element of competition between Hamas and Fatah, rather than unity.

      Neither Israel nor Hamas can now say that they don’t negotiate with each other, whether it is directly, or merely behind a fabric.

      That is a new world.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Renee

      Instead of perpetuating the “divide and conquer” tactics of Israel towards Fateh and Hamas, why can’t Abbas et al share in the joy of the prisoners’ release? After all, it is Hamas who has the bargaining chip (Shalit) in this case and I’m assuming that prisoners being released are of all stripes (no pun intended), so why fall into the trap of creating more “us versus them” rather than just being grateful that someone among the Palestinians was able to negotiate something positive and working towards unity which is in the interest of the Palestinian cause?

      Reply to Comment