5 August 2006

Palestinian prisoners must be released too

By Jacqui McCarney

The horror and bloodshed in the Middle East is at its rawest – the whole world is calling for an immediate unconditional ceasefire, blocked now only by the UK and US. As Gaza and Lebanon are shattered, and missiles fall on Israeli towns and villages, it is the innocent civilians on all sides, especially children, whose suffering becomes unbearable for us, helpless onlookers. Millions of peace-loving people want above all to see an end to the carnage.

Enormous attention has been focussed on the three Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas and Hizbollah, but why has so little attention been paid to the three Lebanese prisoners whose release is demanded by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader?

And, why, is there even less mention of the 9500 so-called Palestinian 'security prisoners' in Israeli jails, a thousand of them classed as 'administrative detainees' and imprisoned without trial? 300 are under the age of 18, and 60 having been incarcerated for 20 years or even longer.

The Middle East conflict is fuelled by huge injustice and human rights violations and these imprisonments are part of the problem. They have been a factor in the capture of Israeli soldiers with the possibility of prisoner exchange.

Israel holds many more prisoners but has used the capture of a few IDF combatants as a pretext to smash civilian life and infrastructure in Lebanon. But there are Israelis who are appalled by the actions of their government and are campaigning against the denial of human rights of so many Palestinians, one of the most active of these campaigners being a courageous and dedicated woman, Anat Matar.

She is a leading figure in the Israeli Action Committee for the Palestinian Prisoners and Detainees, an organisation that firmly believes that there can be no lasting peace between Israel and Palestine so long as thousands of Palestinians are being kept in prison, and which is working to arouse public awareness of their plight in Israel and in the wider world. These Israelis also believe that among the Palestinian prisoners are those who can and should play a significant role in advancing the peace process, demonstrating that co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians is indeed possible

The Action Committee has exposed the fact that parole boards routinely refuse to grant parole to long-serving Palestinian 'security prisoners' after they have served the customary two-thirds of their sentences. It also campaigns on the conditions of the Palestinians prisoners, which are significantly worse than those of 'ordinary' prisoners in the Israeli jails.

The ranks of the Palestinian prisoners have swelled since conflict broke out in Gaza this year, as Israeli forces have detained many Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including members of the Palestinian parliament and government.

Anat Matar has a special link with Norwich - she spoke at the 'Conflict Resolution' Conference at UEA last October and met local people from both Jewish and Muslim communities.

The plight of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails is unfortunately only one example of the world-wide scandal of the abuse of the basic human rights of people confined in jail, often without charge. (Some of the worst examples of the denial of human rights are the infamous US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and 'extraordinary rendition' centres around the world).

How long can the international community tolerate this abuse?

Saturday July 15th saw a Peace Camp at the Norwich Forum with Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, the UN Association and other groups calling for Peace. Just a week earlier, over 300 British Jews signed a full-page advert in The Times newspaper strongly condemning the 'collective punishment' being inflicted on the population of Gaza by Israeli military forces.

Here in Norfolk, the Norfolk Jewish Peace Group work to bring the truth about the situation in the Middle East to public attention and aim to promote peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. In October 2004, they organised a packed Norwich meeting, where two 'refuseniks' - young Israelis who had just been released from prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories – spoke. This October, they will host Judith Keshet from Israel, a founder of Machsom ('Checkpoint Watch') that monitors the checkpoints that Palestinians have to pass when travelling between Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Amid the terrible events now unfolding in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon, it is incumbent on all of us to listen to those voices that call for peace and human rights. If there is to be any hope for mankind, they must in the end drown out the barbaric noise of war.

I am grateful to Jean Davis and the Norfolk Jewish Peace Group for their contribution to this article.