“Palestinian prisoners in general – and those on hunger strike in particular – have been waging a heroic and epic battle of endurance to demonstrate the righteousness of their cause and their right to freedom,” writes leading Palestinian commentator Hani al-Masri on the independent Palestinian website www.masarat.ps
The prisoners deserve more support from the Palestinian people than what they have received so far. They deserve more than just emotional outbursts whenever one of them dies in custody. Their case must be brought before the international community at the UN in order to force Israel into releasing them – especially those who have been incarcerated since before the  Oslo Accord.
The Palestinian leadership committed a grave error in the manner it dealt with the prisoner issue, first when it failed to demand their release before signing up to Oslo, and now by making it into an issue to be negotiated with the Israelis (either as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks, or as a condition for a final peace deal).
No one has failed to notice that Palestinian conditions (or demands) for resuming peace talks have recently been reframed. These conditions originally included agreement on a defined and binding terms of reference that involves the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, a complete cessation of settlement activities, and releasing all prisoners. Now however, the condition regarding agreed terms of reference has been dropped.
Turning the prisoner issue into a subject for negotiation is dangerous, first because it turns their release into a matter for bargaining (regarding numbers, whether those ‘who have Jewish blood on their hand’ and members of organizations ‘who have not renounced terror’ should be released).
A second reason is the possibility that Israel would make releasing some prisoners conditional on the Palestinian leadership's acceptance to resume peace talks. Should the leadership refuse to resume talks, it would appear to have wasted a chance to secure the release of at least some prisoners.
On the other hand, should the leadership agree to resume peace talks, it would also be criticized for abandoning one of its main conditions for doing so – the release of some prisoners.
The method of dealing with the prisoner issue must be changed radically, especially as Palestinian experience has shown that Israel readily changes positions when the Palestinians hold strong cards in their hands – as when they capture an Israeli soldier for example – and when they show themselves united as happened when they have insisted on the release of thousands of prisoners in exchange for a handful of Israeli captives.
The heroic prisoners have a right to freedom. Their release should not become an issue to be bargained over. In order for Israel to yield, the issue of Palestinian prisoners should pursue it around the world. The Palestinians must show absolute determination in this regard.
Israel's reaction to the rising tide of popular resistance that began with demands for the prisoners' release is telling. Fearing a new Palestinian intifada, Israel has agreed to release the tax revenues it has been withholding from the PA, and, in a crass display of insolence, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu called on President Abbas to intervene to defuse the situation and calm tensions. This shows that popular resistance is the best and most cost effective way to secure the prisoners' release without paying a hefty political price.
Steps taken up to now by the Palestinian leadership, factions, people, and activists – good as they are – are insufficient to do justice to men who have sacrificed the best years of their lives for their people.
Why not let the Israelis know that everything (negotiations, security coordination, economic cooperation, etc.) will collapse unless the prisoners are released? Why not make them aware that a partial release is unacceptable, and so is a conditional release?
Making the release of prisoners a condition for resuming peace talks would exact a very heavy price, as the resumption of the futile peace process would benefit only Israel, which would use it to establish new facts on the ground – including the building of new settlements and the arrest of even more Palestinians.
Some might say that dealing with the prisoner issue as a non-negotiable right will not lead to any being released. This is entirely untrue. Demanding the release of all prisoners without exception does not entail refusing the release of some and/or improving their conditions in jail. What it means is an assertion of the prisoners' non-negotiable right to be released. Nor should a political price be paid for their release, as this would undermine the cause they were jailed for in the first place.
More than 800,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated by Israel [since 1967], some more than once. This extraordinary number shows that the Palestinian approach to the problem has not been the right one. For one thing, showing too much goodwill, flexibility, and moderation has not encouraged Israel to respond to Palestinian demands. In fact, this approach has whetted Israel's appetite for even more concessions.
Like any other occupying power throughout history, Israel understands only one language: that of resistance. When Israel feels that holding on to the prisoners will cost more than releasing them, it will let them go.
This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that after more than 20 years, the so-called 'peace process' has achieved nothing for the Palestinians, including securing the release of their prisoners', ending the occupation, or achieving self-determination and independence. In fact, independence is now as remote as ever, despite UN recognition, and is becoming even more so with each passing day.
It is time the prisoners are released, and everything must be done to achieve this goal. This applies especially to those detained before Oslo.
“The prisoner issue must not be linked to the success or failure of a peace process that died a long time ago,” concludes Masri.