In Gaza, Not Just a Soldier -- or Prisoner

Relatives of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails gather every Monday at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City to call for release of their family members.
Relatives of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails gather every Monday at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City to call for release of their family members. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

GAZA CITY, July 3 -- Most of them are women who arrive from the refugee camps that bracket this city. Their weekly call for the release of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails, made from the dusty courtyard of the Red Cross headquarters here, has never really been heard.

But as they crowded into rows of wooden benches Monday, clutching framed photographs of sons, husbands and brothers in Israeli jails, there was a sense of possibility for the first time in years. Suddenly they have a prisoner of their own -- an Israeli soldier.

"They shouldn't release him at all," said Zahara Hassaneen, whose 25-year-old son, Hazen, is serving a 16-year-sentence in Israel as the result of what she said was his affiliation with Hamas. "If they capture more of them, that would be even better. Then the Israelis will release all of our prisoners."

Less than a year after leaving Gaza, Israel is threatening a major ground assault to force the release of Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old corporal captured in a June 25 raid on his army post near Gaza. The armed Palestinian groups holding Shalit, including the military wing of the governing Hamas movement, demanded Monday that Israel release a thousand prisoners by Tuesday morning or "bear full responsibility for the consequences."

The Israeli government rejected the ultimatum. Before dawn Tuesday, Israeli military aircraft fired at least one missile at the Islamic University, a Hamas-controlled institution. The airstrike, following ones on offices of the Hamas prime minister and interior minister in recent days, set a campus meeting hall used by the student council on fire. No injuries were reported.

How did the capture of one soldier mushroom so quickly into crisis? Because in the Palestinian territories a prisoner is not just a prisoner, and in Israel a soldier is not just a soldier.

Israeli military officials have indicated they intend to use Shalit's capture to take care of unfinished business, namely weakening the Hamas-led government and taking out the Palestinian rocket launchers that have plagued southern Israeli cities. But the standoff has become seemingly intractable, in part because soldiers and prisoners are powerful cultural symbols in each society.

Because almost everyone in Israel except ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs has been a soldier, the capture of a young conscript matters deeply across the whole society. The obligatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, as the military is known, is the seminal shared experience in a society divided by politics, ethnicity and religious belief.

In the West Bank and Gaza, the more than 8,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails are viewed as models of personal sacrifice, holding a status just below those who have been killed in the conflict with Israel. Prison time is important to any Palestinian political r?sum? and serves as a stand-in university for many young Palestinians, who learn politics, military tactics, Hebrew and Islam in its cells.

"One can ask what price Israel should pay to release Shalit. Is it to exchange prisoners? To go to war?" said Yagil Levy, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba and author of the "The Other Army of Israel." "There is a debate over this. But beyond that there is an overriding sense that the soldier represents the ethic of the state of Israel and demands a commitment that he not to be abandoned."

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights here, described the Palestinian view in similar terms.

"A leader can't leave his wounded on the battlefield, and a people can't forget their prisoners," said Sourani, who spent six years in Israeli jails for belonging to the outlawed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Israel confuses the world to show that there is only one holy blood, one holy suffering -- the Jewish Israeli. Nobody addresses the real issue, which is the occupation."


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