On the Prisoner Exchange and the Recognition of War

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.


19 thoughts on “On the Prisoner Exchange and the Recognition of War

  1. It is possible this exchange is actually bad for everyone* in the long term. If it proves to groups like Hamas that kidnapping is an effective way of securing concessions from the Israeli government, it may encourage more kidnappings in the future which could in turn produce more violence.

    I admit that is speculative, but setting aside the question of whose cause is just, it does seem like accepting the demands of kidnappers could encourage kidnapping.

    * Everyone except the people released, that is.

  2. The release of all prisoners of war is a precondition for genuine peace between warring parties. If this prisoner exchange is a step towards the release of the rest of the prisoners, then it is part of the real peace process.

    Similarly, if more kidnappings are required to secure the release of the rest of the prisoners of war, then more kidnappings may be required for peace. Sometimes peace in the long term requires a commitment to violence in the short term.

  3. When the prisoners are released, the occupation ceases, and the refugees return – the war will most likely be over. Up until that compromise point is reached, I think the dominant forces on either side are fully committed to the use of violence and kidnapping/detention for political ends.

    (Keep in mind that the current status quo involves Israel kidnapping Palestinians on a daily basis, and sometimes holding them without trial indefinitely. They also kill Palestinians in terrorist attacks with the kind of regularity that makes it part of normal life. These points are just facts, not a matter of my opinion).

  4. Incidentally, Israel isn’t the only party that has kidnapped and is holding Palestinian prisoners of war. The PA is holding many Hamas prisoners of war, and Hamas is holding prisoners of war from Fatah. The PA is probably holding some prisoners of war from within Fatah as well, and also from other PLO factions.

  5. The release of all prisoners of war is a precondition for genuine peace between warring parties.

    The terms of the release matter. There is a big difference between a situation where there is a comprehensive negotiated settlement and all prisoners get released and a situation where the desire to get back a single prisoner prompts the release of 1,000 others that you would otherwise rather keep in custody.

    It would be interesting to learn how the people campaigning for the release of this one Israeli soldier were able to convince the government of Israel to take this deal, given the certainty that there were many in the Israeli government who would have seen this exchange as likely to encourage future acts of kidnapping.

  6. At the very least, studying the tactics used by the advocates of this one soldier might be useful for understanding how to influence the behaviour of the Israeli government.

  7. During the Oslo process, Israel refused to release prisoners of war – this is one, but certainly not the only reason, why that process has failed to lead to a genuine settlement.

    I think the reason this deal happened has more to do with the weak position of Hamas than anything else – they were willing to accept an exchange that didn’t include the high profile leaders Saadat and Barghouti. Israel doesn’t care about most of the detainees – many of them are held without charges, and the military courts that lay charges do not adhere to standards that we would take seriously in a democratic country.

    Israel may have released some soldiers which will be useful to the Palestinians if war breaks out again. But, I think Israeli leaders recognize at this point that without Palestinian terror attacks, the current military elite which rules Israel may face a challenge that they will not be able to face – the challenge represented most explicitly by the protest movement. The top brass at this point needs Palestinians to kill Israeli civilians in order to keep their own population in line and supporting the hardline rightwing leadership.

  8. That last part seems very much like a dubious conspiracy theory mindset. I really doubt the Israeli cabinet decided to approve this prisoner swap in the hopes that the people released would commit terrorist attacks and thus lead to greater support for the current Israeli leadership.

  9. The Israeli cabinet already decided to begin a war with the Palestinians, to attack Gaza without confirmation from their own army intelligence even that the bus attack was actually committed by Palestinians.

    And even if you believe they did have this intelligence (for which no evidence was ever presented beyond the laughable “they used Ak47s”), their decision to attack Gaza was still sure to cause retaliation that could kill otherwise safe Israelis.

    Recognize that this is all happening in a time when the Israeli cabinet was heavily threatened by a protest movement that threatens not only the party in power but the current neo-liberal program in general.

    To say that there was political motivation for this year’s short war with Gaza is not to engage in conspiracy theories – it is simply to point out the obvious.

    If the Israeli cabinet is capable of inciting attacks on its civilians for political reasons at home time, why should we expect the cabinet to be immune from such motivations at other times?

  10. The explanation lies not in morality but in morale. The success of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over the years has rested not merely on its technical competence but also on its cohesion and morale. An important part of this has always been the knowledge soldiers have had that the state will do everything in its power to bring them back home if they fall into enemy hands. This applies not merely to the living but also to the dead – the Israeli government, for instance, paid a heavy price, including freeing a convicted terrorist and four Hezbollah fighters, to secure the return of the bodies of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, killed by Hezbollah in 2006. The latest deal is just a continuation of the same practice, designed to guarantee the cohesion of the IDF.

  11. Soldier’s Family Led Campaign for His Release
    Published: October 19, 2011

    MITZPE HILA, Israel ó The release of Gilad Shalit took years of delicate negotiations at the top levels of the Israeli government and the Hamas militant group. But it also required an extraordinary campaign by his parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, to build overwhelming support among Israel’s people and its right-leaning government to trade more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some guilty of heinous terrorist killings, for their son.

    Their relentless, attention-grabbing effort, perhaps unprecedented for Israel in its scope and endurance, transformed all the Shalit family members, including the grandfather Zvi, from quiet and anonymous citizens into household names, and put their barely known village in northern Israel definitively on the media’s map.

    Experienced public relations professionals volunteered their services, and the news media rallied to the cause. Popular musicians composed and performed songs about Gilad. Thousands of citizens became dedicated activists participating in demonstrations and marches, staffing protest tents and trying to block buses taking Palestinians to visit relatives in Israeli jails.

    To mark the fifth year since the soldier was seized in a cross-border raid and dragged into captivity in Gaza, local celebrities recently took turns sitting alone for an hour in a simulated cell, their experiences broadcast online.

    The Shalit story gripped Israel, where most youths are conscripted at 18. His image appeared everywhere; broadcasters kept a public count of the number of days he had been in captivity. The army promoted him repeatedly, most recently to sergeant first class. The Shalits were embraced as the Israeli every family, giving human form to the deeply ingrained national ethos to never abandon a soldier in the field.

  12. I saw the signs put up by these groups while inside Israeli territory. What you seem very commonly are full scale cardboard cut outs of Shalit. I asked an Israeli friend, “where are the cardboard posters for the 6000 Palestinian political prisoners?”. In response, he simply laughed.

    So long as we characterize Palestinians who have been involved in the use of violence for political ends as “terrorists”, we can almost guarantee that the situation will not admit of a solution. The violence is not random or thoughtless, as those living in situations of privilege are so quick to assert, it is highly organized, thought out, and directed towards a political cause. Recognition of the political status of prisoners who carry out acts of war as part of a conflict is an essential step to changing the situation such that it could admit of a solution.

    1. The violence has seemed rather thoughtless to me over the years. If you think of the Palestinians in 2000 as a guerrilla organization their goal should have been to attack isolated outposts on a rotating basis and thus make it expensive and difficult for the IDF to defend scattered settlements. If you think of them as a terrorist organization the point of political violence would be to assist Arafat at the negotiating table.

      Instead the Palestinians broadly frequently (especially in the beginning) choose targets deep in Israeli territory which unified the population with the army completely and militarized the society. The population became more willing to spend on defense, less willing to settle. They discredited the groups of people who were mostly friendly towards negotiations and strengthened the groups most in favor of resolving the conflict through state terror. Israel became willing to structurally undermine the PA and use broad terror mechanism they hadn’t been willing to before. They also removed the Palestinians from the productive economy.

      I’d say the likely outcome was to permanently shift Israel towards being vastly more dangerous not less dangerous. I have yet to hear any decent explanation for the choice of targets or goals. It looks like rageful lashing out. If you can make a case for how these were carefully chosen tactics I’d love to hear it.

      1. In 2000 the Palestinians who started the intifada did attack isolated outposts and evacuated settlements. It was organized by the Fatah leadership, and of course Arafat had a hand in it.

        It was not until later on that deep targets were attacked, and they were attacked not by the groups organized by Fatah but by grassroots groups formed by grassroots activists – both by Fatah and Hamas and the other factions. Very large bombings carried out by Hamas were carried out to prevent political discussions between the PA and Israel, and they succeeded.

        None of these terms: “Palestinians”, “The PA”, “Fatah”, “Hamas” refer to highly organized unified organizations, especially not at the time of the al aqsa intifada.

  13. If we want to achieve change in any area, the conviction that we are right in our views is not adequate. We need to understand the thinking and the situation of those who disagree, and discover mechanisms for influencing them.

    It seems like this prisoner exchange is a potentially useful case study for understanding how the Israeli leadership makes decisions and how they can be influenced.

  14. In any political movement there needs to be a balance between conviction and critique. If we remain steadfast in our views no matter what the critique, that is dishonest. On the other hand, if we submit to every critique, and try to take everyone’s feelings into account, we are nothing but the expression of the average feeling of whatever social situation we happen to inhabit. I’m not interested in discovering mechanisms for planting in others my beliefs – I’m interested in encouraging people to think honestly and not remain satisfied with platitudes and prejudices.

    The Israeli leadership understands force, and is willing to negotiate with armed groups that it cannot defeat militarily, but this isn’t a new insight. The adoption of the PLO into Israel’s security situation by way of Oslo is now an old example of how armed groups can attain standing with the Zionists in Palestine.

    1. In 2000 the Palestinians who started the intifada did attack isolated outposts and evacuated settlements. It was organized by the Fatah leadership, and of course Arafat had a hand in it. It was not until later on that deep targets were attacked, and they were attacked not by the groups organized by Fatah but by grassroots groups formed by grassroots activists

      The first Fatah attack was Oct 19th, 2000, near Kedumim where they attacked a group of civilians including children. Kedumim is a favorite target for Fatah. I wouldn’t call that isolated, so the very first one wasn’t. Though it is deep in Samaria. By Oct 30th they are attacking East Jerusalem locations, so unquestionably not isolated though still within disputed territories.

      Further I said Palestinians not Fatah. I think it would be ridiculous for Americans to try and escape responsibility for their acts abroad by arguing something was the Marines vs. CIA vs. US Army… The Palestinians are collectively responsible for the activities all militaries they broadly support. So going back tot he timeline, violence stays within the territories till for a season and by February you have attacks in Israel proper. June 1st is the Dolphinarium discotheque bombing, which really was the moment things fundamentally changed. In particular the relationship of the Russian community with the Palestinians becomes horrible and that is the date I would put Israel’s huge shift to the right.

      If the goal of Hamas was to prevent a two state discussion. Well yeah they were successful.

      1. “The Palestinians are collectively responsible for the activities all militaries they broadly support.”

        Even if that is true, it’s no reason for us to speak un=carefully about a military movement which is internally un-unified. And I’m not convinced that this is obviously true – are protestants and catholics each collectively responsible for paramilitary attacks carried by loyalist and nationalist groups in the north of ireland? This notion of “collective responsibility” is dangerous – what, would you say, is the collective responsibility of the Israelis for continuing the settlement project, for killing Palestinians in the occupied territories, etc?

  15. are protestants and catholics each collectively responsible for paramilitary attacks carried by loyalist and nationalist groups in the north of ireland?

    Yes if you allow an army to operate from your territory it is an army of your territory. And no question Unionists and the IRA both got strong support from their respective civilian populations.

    I’d even go so far as to partially hold USA Irish Catholics responsible. There are 40m Irish Catholics in the USA, there are 6.5m Irish in Ireland. During the 80’s and I assume before that, twice a day in every Irish bar, they would pass a black hat around and about 1/3rd of the people would throw some bills in for the extreme wings of the IRA and various extremist charities and support groups. There was a clear preference among American Irish Catholics for a continuation of the armed conflict rather than negotiations and if one wanted to hold them at least partially responsible collectively I think that’s fair.

    This notion of “collective responsibility” is dangerous – what, would you say, is the collective responsibility of the Israelis for continuing the settlement project, for killing Palestinians in the occupied territories, etc?

    I think the settlements are a government project supported actively and passively by Israeli society and the Israelis are responsible for it.

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