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Source: United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG)
Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP)
4 April 2012



MEETING ON THE QUESTION OF PALESTINE DISCUSSES POLITICAL PRISONERS IN THE CONTEXT OF POLITICAL PROCESSES

The Committee hears a proposal for the framework for release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.
4 April 2012

The International Meeting on the Question of Palestine this afternoon held a thematic meeting on the issue of Palestinian political prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian political process, during which it heard a proposal for a timeframe for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons as part of the political process.

The question of Palestinian political prisoners had been neglected in the Oslo Accords of 1993, said Qadura Fares, Chairman, Palestinian Prisoners Society Ramallah, who presented a three-phase plan for their release. This issue needed to sit front and centre in the political negotiations and become one of the key issues in any future agreement: the Palestinian leadership would not put their signature on any agreement that failed to resolve the issue of prisoners.

Mutaz M. Qafisheh, Professor of International Law, Hebron University, compared Palestinian political prisoners with the experiences of Namibia and apartheid South Africa. The difference in the situations was the reaction of the international community: the world was willing to intervene in the South Africa and Namibia situation, and follow through on its resolutions to eradicate apartheid. The international community should take meaningful action in addition to talking forums, and each State, especially friends of Israel, should impose sanctions on Israel and restrict travel by Israelis suspected of committing crimes.

Hanif Vally, human rights lawyer and Deputy Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Johannesburg, said the process of releasing political prisoners in apartheid South Africa was an interesting one from which the world could learn. Mr. Vally described the negotiations leading to the release of Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, and said that many South Africans were active in boycotting and campaigning against Israel, stemming from their own experience. The sentiment of the South African people was that no one in the world could be free while Palestine was in bondage.

Mahmoud Hassan, Director of the Legal Unit of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Jerusalem, said that detention was now being used by Israel as bargaining chip to use in negotiations and for political ends. Recently, 27 Palestinian parliamentarians had been arrested in an attempt of Israel to influence the political climate in Palestine; those arrests had no connection with the security situation in Israel or its security agenda.

In concluding remarks speakers once again underlined the need for action by the international community; inaction represented a green light to Israel to continue with the violation of international law. The international community should change its attitude vis-à-vis Israel, and then Israel would cease to be the only country that considered itself above the international law.

Taking the floor in the discussion with Committee Experts were Palestine, Russia, Palestinian Prisoners Society, Hebron University, the Foundation for Human Rights in Johannesburg, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Jerusalem, Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, United Nations Office of the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights of Gaza.

Plenary Statements:


QADURA FARES,
Chairman, Palestinian Prisoners Society, Ramallah, said since 1967 the occupying power Israel had imprisoned some 800,000 Palestinians for exercising a right guaranteed under international law: to resist occupation in pursuit of freedom and independence. However, when the first negotiations took place with Israel in 1993 the question of prisoners was neglected, and the agreement signed had no provisions for them. Today the Palestinian leadership would not put their signature on any agreement that failed to resolve the issue of prisoners. Experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland provided good examples of how the issue of prisoners could be resolved in the context of a political solution. Finding a solution to the question of prisoners would be a way of increasing public acceptance of any later agreement. The issue needed to be dealt with at the same time as a political process and could be initiated with the release of extremely vulnerable prisoners, such as ill persons, women, children, administrative detainees and those arrested prior to the Oslo Agreement. Agreement must be presented to the Palestinian authorities and must include provision for the return of the remains of those who died in detention. A further wave of releases should take place upon signature of a framework agreement, and should see the release of over 3,000 prisoners with sentences lesser than life imprisonment and who had not caused any human death.

A Committee should be established with representatives of Israel, Palestine and the Quartet that could agree on conditions of detention consistent with humanitarian standards and international law. Israel should commit to complying with the Committee’s findings. Every six to eight months, Israel would release a small number of prisoners as a gesture of goodwill; those released were often those almost at the end of their sentences. It was essential to learn lessons from the past and make sure that the question of Palestinian prisoners was a key issue of the negotiations.

MUTAZ M. QAFISHEH,
Professor of International Law, Hebron University, compared Palestinian political prisoners with the experiences of prisoners in Namibia and apartheid South Africa. Namibia and Palestine had both been under international mandates and had similar status at the end of the mandated period. The situations in South Africa and Israel had much in common: both states had adopted discriminatory laws. Israel was not cooperating with the international community in a similar way to how South Africa had not cooperated with United Nations resolutions. The difference was in the reaction of the international community: the world was willing to intervene in the South Africa-Namibia situation and follow through on its resolutions and decisions; if that hadn’t been the case, the situation in Namibia would have remained the same.

The international community should take meaningful action in addition to talking forums, and each State, especially friends of Israel, should impose sanctions on Israel and restrict travel by Israelis suspected of committing crimes. The Palestinians too should utilize all measures available in international law and relations. The recent step towards seeking full United Nations membership was one such tool. The admission of Palestine to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in October 2011 opened the door for Palestine to ratify key human rights instruments. Palestine could become a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, and other international instruments. Would Israel accept being the last State in the Middle East to open prisons, remove walls and end racism? If Israel was unable to stop its apartheid and racism, two options would be left: either the Governments of the world would act, or the free people of the region would do the job.

HANIF VALLY,
human rights lawyer and Deputy Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, Johannesburg, said that the process of releasing prisoners in South Africa in the context of democracy was an interesting one from which the world could learn. Exchanges took place between Nelson Mandela and former President Botha in the 1980s. The South African authorities had expressed willingness to release Nelson Mandela if he had rejected the use of violence as a political instrument. It was argued that the issue of calling for a renunciation of violence as a prerequisite for negotiations was common to repressive Governments faced by armed uprising; Mr. Mandela had said that the renunciation of violence should not be a condition but a result of negotiating. The question of release of political prisoners was of a highly politically charged nature in the political negotiations, as both parties needed to send appropriate messages to their constituencies, the international community and to the other party.

Perceptions of South Africa’s negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy being largely peaceful were not altogether true. It was estimated that from the start of the negotiations to the 1994 elections some 14,000 persons were killed. In apartheid South Africa the State and judicial system had been vicious in its sentencing of political prisoners and a life sentence literally meant dying in prison. The initial release of political prisoners had taken place in fits and starts. Prisoner releases were used as bargaining chips and public relations exercises and parties could not agree on number of political prisoners still in prisons; by 1991 the apartheid state had claimed there had been only 200 of them, while the African National Congress claimed there were at least 5,000. South Africa underwent an amnesty process and truth and reconciliation hearings; the three legged Pivotal Compromises made negotiated settlement possible, including the amnesty provision in the interim Constitution, the two-stage Constitution drafting process and the Government of National Unity. Many South Africans today were active in boycott and disinvestments campaigns against Israel, which stemmed from their own experience. The sentiment of the South African people was that no one in the world could be free while Palestine was in bondage.

MAHMOUD HASSAN,
Director, Legal Unit, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Jerusalem, said that the Oslo Accords and the Taba Accords had addressed the question of Palestinian political prisoners by setting a framework for release. However, the agreements did not set the numbers to be released. Israel released a lower number of prisoners than it had committed to; it would release criminal offenders and those whose sentences were almost at the end. The Oslo Agreement did not respect international law with regard to political prisoners, as it did not call for the release of all prisoners and did not resolve the issue of Palestinians arrested after 1993. Palestinian prisoners should not be divided into groups and categories; they should all receive the same treatment accorded to prisoners of war.

The problem of occupation was a lasting one and even if Israel recognized the status of prisoners of war, those people would remain in detention for a long time. Nothing on the horizon indicated the end of the occupation. Throughout successive accords and agreements for release of Palestinian prisoners, Israel had never fully respected the commitments it had agreed to but would release prisoners only as a measure of goodwill. Israel chose the people to release by name and type of sentence served, in total disregard of the provisions of accords. Recently, 27 Palestinian parliamentarians were arrested in an attempt by Israel to influence the political climate in Palestine. Those arrests had no connection with the security situation in Israel or its security agenda. Detention was being used by Israel as bargaining chip to use in negotiations and for political ends.

Discussion between Experts, Organizations and Committee Members


In the ensuing discussion, an expert said that the issue of prisoners must be at the core of negotiations and must not be kept hostage to tensions and confidence-building. Prisoner release must be subject to a timetable until the settlement of the conflict. Palestine had been encouraged by the signs of Israel’s goodwill during the negotiations for the Oslo Agreements, which were a trap; prisoner release must be clearly defined in any agreement. Positive steps in the resolution of the issue of Palestinian prisoners would contribute to the resumption of direct talks and the promotion of peace and security for the region as a whole, another speaker said. Release of prisoners could be seen as a confidence-building measure between Tel Aviv and Palestine. An organization asked whether the names of prisoners with special needs were communicated during negotiations and what the outcomes were.

An Expert said that the Club of Palestinian Prisoners had substantial information provided by its members; that information was made available to those who needed it. During the time the President of the Club was involved in negotiations, Israel refused to even give the names of those persons engaging in negotiations. Names of prisoners had never been put on the table as a subject of negotiations. Another Expert said that that even when he had been working within the United Nations system, he had considered himself a human rights expert first and had brought cases of Palestinians to some special procedures. Even though the special procedures were among the most professional United Nations human rights mechanisms, due to the requirements of geographical balance, the situation of Palestine didn’t receive adequate attention by mandate holders.

A speaker asked if any of the Committee Members had a complete number of Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons, in addition to Palestinian prisoners. Another speaker commented that special procedures faced constraints not only in the form of resources of geographical balance, but by lack of cooperation by States and lack of enforcement mechanisms.

A Committee Member said in response to the question about Arab detainees, all those who had fought the occupation had a responsibility to free prisoners; there were prisoners from Arab countries in Israeli prisons, but their exact numbers were not known. The work of the special procedures was extremely professional and successful, including the work on Palestine where a mandate holder had been effective in lifting travelling bans, preventing executions and more. Special procedures needed more staff, a larger budget and greater resources in order to accept more cases, particularly from Palestine.

Concluding Remarks


MUTAZ M. QAFISHEH,
Professor of International Law, Hebron University, said that the situation in Palestine was very similar to that of apartheid South Africa; in both cases international law had been violated. The only difference was in international action against apartheid in South Africa, which had been eradicated thanks to the action by the international community. That was the message from the discussion today: more action needed to be taken against Israel in the near future.

QADURA FARES,
Chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners Society, Ramallah, said inaction by the international community represented a green light to Israel to continue with its violations of international law. The international community should change its attitude vis-à-vis Israel, and then Israel would cease to be the only country that considered itself above the international law.

MAHMOUD HASSAN,
Director, Legal Unit, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association Jerusalem, said that Palestinian prisoners were not criminals and asked the international community not to let those prisoners die in Israeli jails.

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For use of information media; not an official record

M12/12E


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