There was a rather mysterious flurry of rumors and SMS news flashes yesterday that Israel’s Corporal Gilad Shalit — seized in late June 2006 at the Kerem Shalom tri-point where the borders of Israel, Egypt and Gaza meet, and presumably held somewhere in Gaza ever since — was suddenly about to be released. Demonstrations were held yesterday at both sides of the Erez terminal for “passenger crossing” between Israel and Gaza. On the Israeli side, demonstrators were urging that no goods be sent into Gaza as long as Shalit was still held captive, and the International Red Cross still not allowed to see him. On the Palestinian side, demonstrators were calling for the crossings to be opened, and the seige on Gaza lifted — and for the release of some 11,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli detention. There were reports (perhaps wrong) that at least some of the Palestinians were also calling for Shalit to be released…
In any case, despite the rumors and news flashes, nothing happened.
An article published in Haaretz earlier in the week reported that “According to information recently received in Israel, Egypt would like to see negotiations for the release of Shalit resume from the point at which they left off during the final days of the Olmert government. However, the Egyptians have also asked Israel to abandon its plan to exile some of the Palestinian prisoners that will be released in exchange for Shalit’s freedom”.
The same issue — Israeli demands to deport some currently imprisoned Palestinians, either to Gaza or to Europe — arose a few months ago, as we reported at the time here . As we wrote then, the Road Map recognized that this specific issue of deportations was a problem. So, it is hard to see why and how Israel is asking for this now. Does Israel think that a negotiated, agreed deportation of the Palestinians it is holding prisoner would be any more legal, or any more acceptable, or in conformity to the Road Map obligations? Would the Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN) agree to such a re-writing of the Road Map?
Phase One of the Road Map — endorsed and strongly-backed by the U.S. and the Quartet of Middle East Negotiators (which also includes the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations Secretary-General) requires Israel to stop deportations. The Road Map specifies that the Government of Israel should take no action “undermining trust, including deportations, attacks on civilians; confiscation and/or demolition of Palestinian homes and property, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli constructions; destruction of Palestinian institutions and infrastructure; and other measures specified in the Tenet Work Plan”.
The Road Map was presented in 2003, and was written not too long after the unsatisfactory resolution of the stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in which Israel sent several dozen Palestinian men into what was supposed to be a temporary one-year exile in Gaza or Europe. Those men were put under pressure, in order to spare the community from the effects of the continued Israeli seige in Bethlehem, to agree to be deported voluntarily.
And that’s what would have to happen again, if any country would be asked to accept Palestinian prisoners who would agree to a “voluntary” deportation in order to facilitate Israel’s consent to a prisoner release now.
But the Road Map did not say that “voluntary deportations” are OK, unlike other kinds of deportations which were to have stopped.
And then, there’s always Gaza. No third country would have to give consent. Israel can just decide on its own to send somebody there. On 26 May, for example, Mahmoud Azzam, a Palestinian prisoner originally from Jenin was released from Israeli jail and then deported to Gaza. If there’s another Israeli military operation on Gaza — as some government ministers are urging — that deportation could become a death sentence.
The Quartet said nothing.
Seven years after the seige on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, almost all of those deportees are still in exile, with no end to their ordeal in sight. Deportation is a deeply traumatic experience for Palestinians, after half the population was exiled or displaced in the fighting that surrounded the creation of the state of Israeli in 1948.
The Road Map can be read here.
[Israel’s reservations to the Road Map can be viewed here. Among these is point number 6, which reads: “In connection to both the introductory statements and the final settlement, declared references must be made to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to the waiver of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.]