So, it looks like the prisoner exchange is going to happen – the famous Israeli detainee will be released in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Currently Israelis are appealing to their supreme court to try to block the deal, but the Israeli supreme court does not like intervening in military affairs, so I think it’s unlikely that these citizen’s appeals will come to anything.
People are upset because Palestinians who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis will be released. This is, given the way Israelis tend to understand the conflict, very understandable. But, the way Palestinians tend to look at the situation is that these acts of violence are part of a war. And Israelis know very well that killing in a war is not the same as murder – which is why Israeli soldiers who steal property from Palestinian houses are more likely to be reprimanded than those who kill civilians during a military operation (of course, I might disagree that this isn’t murder – but that’s beside the point here).
Essentially, the prison swap is a victory for the Palestinians, and specifically for Hamas, not only because many families will be re-united – but also because the swap is an act of recognition of the war taking place between the two parties. This is what Oslo failed to do – in the Oslo peace accords the Israelis refused to release any Palestinian prisoners who killed Israeli soldiers. That’s wrong – in the peace process at the end of a war, the prisoners of war on both sides must be released, and their “Crimes” must be interpreted as acts of war. Israel has consistently refused to do this because they practice the same tactic as the British used against the IRA – criminalization. However, in the prisoner swap, there is implicit recognition of the war, and therefore of the right to have waged war, and the right to have the war which was waged recognized as a war and not as seperate acts of criminality.
The way the Israeli press talks about “the terrorists” is very revealing. First, they are almost always called terrorists rather than soldiers or rebels – this is an attempt to de-politicize the war, to refuse to grant it any propaganda value. Moreover, when the acts of violence are referred to, they are often called attacks against “israelis”, rather than distinguishing between Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians. One reason for this might be that basically all Israelis are soldiers, but I don’t think that is the reason. I think the real reason for not making a distinction is that if a distinction were made between attacks on civilians and attacks on soldiers, this might imply a possible validity to attacks on soldiers as an act of war against an occupying army, and attacks on civilians.
To be clear, honest and serious about acts of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many distinctions need to be made so that the moral judgements are not proscribed in advance. Distinctions not only between attacks on soldiers and civilians, but also between attacks on soldiers inside and outside the green line. If we recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the occupied territories, there is some basis in international law for the legality of armed insurrection against an occupying force. Moreover, we should make a distinction between attacks on civilians inside ’48 Israel, and attacks on settlers or civilians driving through occupied territory. The settlements have military purposes – at least their purpose is to grab land from the occupied territories, and these blocks of land are almost always justified in the secular media with the logic of defence against possible invasion from neighbouring Arab states. An argument could be made that if the settlements serve military purposes, then the settlements are military instillations, and their occupants should be classified with non-combattent troops like cooks or teachers in the army. This classification should be independent of the motivations of the individuals living in settlements or travelling on occupied land – they are part of the military defence project not on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of the state objectives which their subsidization furthers.
However, if one were not to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the ’48 borders, which is an altogether understandable position for refugees in camps to hold, none of these distinctions would allow Israelis to be considered as civilians. One could in this case argue that they are all occupying Palestinian land, and are all part of the military project of seizing land for a zionist state. It is therefore entirely understandable that for Palestinians taking this anti-zionist position, that they would not recognize any difference between acts of “terror” and acts of “war”. Ironically enough, in the full scale anti-zionist position we end up with the same non-distinction between acts against soldiers and acts against civilians practiced by the Israeli media – but for the opposite reason. Except, it’s not ironic – this epistemic chasm between the sides is simply part of the conflict. If the different sides could agree on terms, and could agree what was legitimate and what was not, there wouldn’t a conflict – there would be a peace process. And today, despite what we’re told, there isn’t a peace process – there is a process of the continuation of war by other means, by both sides, under the language of “peace process”. (But, maybe that’s always what peace processes are right up until the moment they become viable).
The solution to the conflict will not involve the colonists telling the refugees that they are wrong about their own past. The war will end only if the war is recognized as a war, and treated as a war, and combatants are treated as combatants – as prisoners of war, and as participants in a conflict for which they are not personally responsible. Anything short of Israeli recognition of Palestinian soldiers as soldiers fighting for a cause and not as individualized criminals will produce only untenable peace agreements. Perhaps the implied recognition in the prisoner swap can be a symbolic event over which people can argue – and by this argument move towards the recognition that the situation requires if any real peace is wanted.