Obama went to Ramallah and held a summit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today. The comments that the two men made afterwards were predictable enough – harsh criticism of Israeli settlement by Abbas along with Obama’s reiteration of his opposition to settlements; affirmation by Obama that he wants a Palestinian state along with warnings from Abbas that some Palestinians are losing hope in the two-state solution.
A slightly more interesting aspect of the summit was the fact that Ramallah’s Prisoners’ Affairs Minister Issa Qaraqe was included. This reflects the ever-growing frustration of Palestinians over the issue of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The issue is always an important one to Palestinians, but takes on even greater significance at the moment, following the death of 30-year-old Palestinian Arafat Jaradat in Israeli detention last month, and in the light of hunger strikes, including a large-scale strike that ended in June.
There is another factor that most likely led to Qaraqe’s inclusion in the talks. In internal Palestinian politics, his kudos needs boosting, and meeting with Obama certainly improves his credentials. Why is this important? Because his office, which is meant to be the key address for prisoner-related matters, was badly humiliated by the fact that Hamas managed to do more for prisoners in 2011 than it did for years. It secured the release of 1,027 prisoners in the deal to free Gilad Shalit.
Qaraqe gave Obama a letter saying: “More than half a million Palestinian citizens were detained since 1967, and about 4,900 are being held now including men, women, children, lawmakers, elderly people, disabled people, civil servants, militants, former minister and politicians. They are living in inhuman condition and subjected to abusive procedures under military regulations which breach international law and human rights conventions.”
In terms of Qaraqe’s opinions, he believes strongly that the international community should intervene on the issue of Palestinian prisoners. “The entire world, as well as the United Nations, are responsible for protecting Palestinian prisoners … deprived of their basic rights as stated in international law,” he said last year. He takes the view that the United States should be demanding prisoner releases, and insisting on improved rights for detainees.
Of course, these are matters that Obama is reluctant to get dragged in to, avoiding the subject of Palestinian prisoners about as assiduously as he’s avoiding the Jonathan Pollard issue on the Israeli side. He will have listened politely to Qaraqe’s requests, but tried to move on. But in all likelihood, Qaraqe will have left him with a very simple argument: Securing the release of 1,027 prisoners buoyed Hamas, so just imagine the boost to the Palestinian Authority and confidence in the US could come from a release following today’s meetings. And perhaps a parting thought from Qaraqe to Obama: Jaradat’s death didn’t result in the kind of widespread violence that some Israeli observers feared, but if tensions do boil over in the West Bank any time soon, the chances are high that the trigger could be prisoner-related.