Locking away the peace-makers

Israel released 26 Palestinian prisoners this week, in keeping with its commitment to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prior to the current round of peace talks.

The release was a grudging and bad-tempered affair, accompanied by a mini-revolt in the cabinet, right-wing protests and a knee-jerk announcement, only hours after the release, that Israel would renew construction in the occupied territories.

The low-key reception that the released prisoners received on their return to the West Bank was also indicative of the general gloom and pessimism on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The release was no harbinger of peace; everyone understands that it was solely the result of diplomatic expediency, rather than an indication of progress towards an end to the occupation.

Ahmed Kathrada, a long-time prisoner of apartheid and resident, with Nelson Mandela, of Robben Island, wrote a piece in Al-Jazeera English []  about the barbarity of keeping people locked up for endless decades. His piece is worth reading, not only for the simple sense of what he says, but for the light it throws on the opportunity that is being wasted in our own region.

The phased prisoner releases that Kerry managed to extract from the Israeli government are a “gesture;” an acknowledgement by Israel that the so-called peace process – rather than peace itself – is a diplomatic necessity and that releasing long-in-the-tooth and enervated Palestinian prisoners is preferable, from Israel’s perspective, to announcing a halt to settlement, which was the alternative.

The prisoner release is not intended to assist in achieving peace, but in dragging out the negotiating process.

When South African began the release of its own political prisoners in the late-80s, the end of apartheid was already imminent – not, perhaps in the minds of the Afrikaner regime, but in practice. It was clear to the regime that it would have to negotiate – and that the people it would need to negotiate with were languishing behind bars. The opposition on the outside was toothless and lacking in credibility.

Had South Africa not released Mandela and his fellow prisoners, peace in South Africa would never have been achieved. The black South Africans who were capable of making peace were either dead, exiled or in prison. By releasing the senior prisoners prior to the start of negotiations, the apartheid regime ensured that they would have a chance of success.

Not much that is good can be said about the men who applied apartheid (there were very few women in positions of power,) but the sense of realism they displayed at the end was to their eternal credit.

That sense of realism is conspicuously absent in Israel. We’ve been hallucinating for so long that we’re incapable of understanding that the status quo is the path to catastrophe. Messianic Zionism and the illusion of military power have made us future-proof. The Zionist dream has mutated into a bizarre, dream-like state in which half of us drink grossly over-priced coffee in Tel Aviv, while the other half does its best to batter the Palestinians into submission. That is our reality.

If Israel truly wanted peace, it would look inside its own prisons. That’s where it would find people who both believe in co-existence and are capable of bringing it about. People like Marwan Barghouti, whose life sentences are an indictment of those who sentenced him. Unlike Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Barghouti, and others like him, are actually capable of negotiating a settlement, which is why they remain locked up.

Israel doesn’t want peace. It wants the illusion of talking about peace, while continuing, brick-by-brick and shot-by-shot, to entrench its hold over the occupied territories and those who live in them.

I certainly don’t begrudge the few prisoners who have been released their freedom. I am very happy that they are back with their families. But they are the carefully-filtered tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of others who haven’t been released and whose potential contribution to a settlement in this blood-drenched land can only be guessed at.

Most South African whites of my generation grew up never hearing the name Nelson Mandela, just as most Jewish kids in Israel have never heard of Marwan Barghouti. It’s worth reminding ourselves, over and over, that Nelson Mandela was also denounced as a terrorist and sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet he emerged to become the peace-maker in a situation that was just as bloody and just as intractable as ours.

If only …