MUGHRABI: Prisoner swap unequal to task 26Oct11 October 25, 2011

by Maher Mughrabi  -  The Age  -  25 October 2011

Just over a month ago, I was invited to a Melbourne synagogue to try to explain the Palestinian Authority’s decision to apply for full membership of the United Nations.

I wish I could say that everyone in the audience was in the mood for explanations. At the height of one cacophony, a woman demanded to know, “Would you talk peace with people who are shooting at you?” I replied that I could scarcely see the point of talking about peace with anyone else.

The truth of that remark was reaffirmed by the latest Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange, though exactly what else it proves has been a matter of considerable dispute.

As with past prisoner exchanges, a great deal of ink has been spent on the disparity in the number of prisoners each side received. Some people are sufficiently insensitive to suggest that this represents a rate of exchange, and that one Israeli might somehow be worth just over a thousand Palestinians.

More pernicious, and more widely held, is the ethnically chauvinist view that the numerical imbalance is also a moral one; that the exchange proves that Jewish Israelis value human life to a far greater degree than the millions of Arabs they live alongside.

In truth, the ratio of one Israeli – Gilad Shalit – to 1027 Palestinians has nothing to do with the marketplace or morality and everything to do with another imbalance between the two sides – that of power.

Consider for a moment another set of numbers: the casualties from the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip known as Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, in which 13 Israelis and 1400 Palestinians died.

No one would take seriously the argument that this disparity proved that Palestinians are more scrupulous about the taking of life. What it demonstrates is the difference between Palestinians living under occupation and their Israeli occupiers: the occupied seize (and kill) who they can; occupiers seize (and kill) who they like.

The only time that this imbalance shifts is when, instead of seizing and killing, you want to find and save, a task requiring more knowledge and care. This is why Israel’s government needed to negotiate with people upon whom it normally wages war.

The much-publicised conclusion of those negotiations does not remove the underlying imbalance, which is why the next conflict, the next abduction and the next lopsided exchange of prisoners are a matter of when, not if.

During the synagogue discussion, an Israeli woman stood up and informed me, calmly and seriously, that she is afraid of Palestinians. If I had that moment again, I would remind her that as a citizen of Israel, it is quite clear who will defend her from Palestinians and any other group that seeks to threaten her security.

I would contrast this with the situation in which the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip now live – in a word, statelessness – and the situation that the current Israeli government proposes they accept at some undetermined point in the future, namely a demilitarised state.

In both cases – and assuming that no one else in the region plans to dismantle their military in the meantime – it is not clear who might defend the Palestinians.

Of course, the consequences of statelessness are not only felt in the present and the future. The occupation has meant that generation after generation of Palestinians – from hard-core terrorists to peaceful dissidents to children – have for more than 40 years been detained arbitrarily, imprisoned indefinitely and tried in military tribunals that do not consider any of those who come before them to be prisoners of war.

What is more, many are imprisoned inside the internationally recognised borders of Israel, which is to say beyond the confines of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This often means that their relatives lack the means or the authorisation to visit them, but it also contravenes international law, which clearly states that residents of an occupied territory should not be removed from that territory by the occupying power.

Watching Gilad Shalit struggle to walk and to return his Prime Minister’s welcoming embrace was a heart-wrenching sight. But it must not obscure the fact that, until 1999, Palestinians were imprisoned in a system in which torture was routine, and in which for many years those carrying out the torture lied about it under oath; or that in 2001, to cite only one example, the Israeli government itself deemed the conditions in which Palestinians were held in Israel’s Shatta prison unfit for human beings.

One of my themes at the synagogue was that the demand for recognition that Israelis make of Palestinians and that Palestinians make of Israelis can only be realised if there are two states (the only body competent to recognise another state) and if the recognition that occurs is mutual.

Whether we are talking about statehood or prisoners, I believe that both occupier and occupied are well served by the maxim which the Jewish sage Hillel said constituted the whole of the Torah: ”That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Maher Mughrabi is a foreign news editor at The Age.

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