There is a reason Palestinians are keen on releasing their prisoners, despite the heavy price they continue to pay for their freedom. It may seem rational to ask: what is the point of releasing a few Palestinian detainees from Israeli prisons if the price of doing so is the deaths of more than 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza?
In fact, even if all Palestinian prisoners – there are about 7,000 of them according to Addameer – were to be released, they would not even amount to 30 percent of the total number of Palestinian dead and missing in the Israeli genocide in the Strip so far. The logic may sound even more puzzling when we consider that, between Oct. 7 and Nov. 28, Israel detained more than 3,200 Palestinians in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.
In particular, the number of Palestinian women and children detainees released during several prisoner swaps between the Palestinian resistance and the Israeli army between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30 is insignificant compared to those detained during the same period. But mathematical equations are irrelevant in liberation wars. If we resort to this kind of logic, then perhaps it is more rational for colonized nations and oppressed groups not to resist in the first place, because doing so could multiply the harm inflicted upon them by their colonizers and oppressors.
While Israelis see all their captives in Gaza, whether civilians or soldiers, in terms of numbers, Palestinians approach the issue from an entirely different perspective. All Palestinians are captives, according to the reality on the ground, because all Palestinians are victims of Israeli colonialism, military occupation and apartheid. The difference between being a prisoner in Megiddo, Ofer or Ramleh prison, for example, and being a prisoner in an isolated, walled-off Palestinian town under Israeli military occupation in Area C of the West Bank is rather technical.
True, those in Megiddo are subjected to more violence, torture even. They are denied proper food, medicine and the freedom to move about. But how is that fundamentally different from the incarceration of the 2.3 million people living in Gaza now? Some would even argue that living in Gaza during a time of genocide is more confining and far less safe than being a political prisoner in Israel under “normal” circumstances.
So, clearly, the issue is not related to numbers, but rather to power relations. Under international law, Israel is the occupying power. This entitles it to certain rights as per, for example, the Fourth Geneva Convention, but also numerous responsibilities. For decades, Israel has abused those rights and completely ignored all its responsibilities. Over the same period, Palestinians have appealed to – and even implored – the international community to enforce international law on Israel, unsuccessfully.
This was illustrated by the pitiful display of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a speech at the UN General Assembly in May. “Protect us,” he said, repeatedly, before making an analogy between Palestinians and animals. “Aren’t we human beings? Even animals should be protected. If you have an animal, won’t you protect it? Protect us.” Most Palestinians well know that the US and Western-dominated international institutions will not provide protection for Palestinians based on any kind of moral rationale, or even their love for animals.
This realization dawned on Palestinians generations ago, when the international community failed to enforce a single UN resolution on Israel. Regarding the ongoing conflict, the international community has proved to be particularly irrelevant; to the extent that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pronounced it outright when he said last month that the UN has neither the “money nor power” to prevent genocide in Gaza. Guterres and other top UN officials must be aware of the marginal role that the international community is playing in the Israeli war on Gaza because of the strong US stance in support of Israel. As long as Washington continues to serve as the vanguard of Israeli war crimes in Palestine, Tel Aviv has no reason to stop. So, Palestinians are doing what every other occupied, colonized people have done in this situation: resisting. Through their resistance, they hope to introduce a new factor to a long-skewed equation that is largely controlled by Israel and its Western allies.
By releasing their prisoners – as a direct result of their own resistance – Palestinians are able to influence outcomes. It means that they are political agents; in fact, political actors who can redefine the rules of the game altogether. Indeed, Palestinians approach the issue of prisoners as part of a larger struggle for liberation. Those who can free 100 or 7,000 detainees would set a historical precedent that will, eventually, allow them to free the whole Palestinian people.
Israel is fully aware of the power and representation of the prisoners’ issue because it imprisons Palestinians as an expression of power and control over every aspect of Palestinian lives. Though some of the detainees are considered, in the eyes of Israel, “security prisoners,” many were detained for social media posts, their WhatsApp status or for no reason at all. Many Palestinian women have been detained for visiting the families of other prisoners or for mourning the deaths of Palestinian youths killed by Israel. Israel detained these women for the same reason that far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir banned Palestinians from celebrating their children’s freedom.
Specifically, Israel wants to control every aspect of Palestinians’ lives – their actions, real or symbolic, and even their anger, joy and all other emotions. When Palestinians are released through prisoner exchanges, they emerge, proudly and with heads held high, from Israeli dungeons, despite the numerous obstacles and restrictions and Israel’s insistence on keeping all Palestinian captives.
For Palestinians, this is an unparalleled victory. So, no, this is not a numbers game. Though every Palestinian individual matters, whether they are being killed in Gaza or held captive in Israeli prisons, for Palestinians all issues are linked to one single project called liberation. It is for this coveted collective freedom that Palestinians have fought, generation after generation, however high the cost.