This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
This coming week is likely to be full of John Kerry’s peace process “caveats.” Much talking will occur to decide if talking in Washington, D.C. – about talking at another level six months down the line – will occur. What isn’t being talked about is the longer view. Do Kerry’s caveats seek to disguise an irrevocable Palestinian surrender?
First up is the prisoner release Palestinians are demanding. Here lies the first “devil is in the details” caveat. Who are these prisoners that Palestinians want released or, in political terms, what do they represent?
The New York Times reports that there are about one hundred or so prisoners being discussed. (link) These prisoners were arrested and imprisoned before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. For Palestinians, they are prisoners of war. Israel sees them as terrorists. Here’s how the Times frames it:
Frustrated by the lack of a guarantee regarding the 1967 borders, the Palestinians on Friday pushed further on prisoners, an issue with profound emotional resonance on both sides. Palestinians consider the men in Israel’s jails, particularly those serving since before Oslo, prisoners of war. Israelis call them terrorists. Some have been convicted of multiple murders, and the families of their victims have already made passionate public appeals against the release.
At least in the Western press, I rarely see Palestinian prisoners referred to as prisoners of war. Such designations are more than emotional. There’s a legal standing enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and international law for prisoners of war. Historically, the distinction has been between ordinary criminality and those captured in war. Nowadays, the distinction is muddled with “terrorist” terminology.
Nonetheless, the issue remains. Israel wants Palestinians to assent that Israel is a Jewish state. But from the Palestinian perspective, to create a Jewish state, Israel had to wage war on Palestine and Palestinians. That was Israel’s origins. For Palestinians, Israel’s war has continued since its founding.
Yet the pre-Oslo time frame begs a further question. Did Israel’s war on Palestine and Palestinians end with the signing of the Oslo Accords? Or did Israel’s war continue under the accords and in some ways accelerate?
The terminology typically used by activists on Israel/Palestine to describe the origins of Israel – ethnic cleansing – and the post-1967 war reality – occupation – may need revision. What if Israel, with the collusion of the Jewish establishment in the United States, without leaving out Israel’s enabling partners, the United States and Europe, undertook historically and continues today to conduct war against Palestine and the Palestinians?
Though ethnic cleansing is horrific and occupation is terrible, in our lexicon they have taken on almost a rote and passive sensibility. But if Israel has declared permanent war on Palestine and Palestinians then those who fight on either side of the war should carry different designations.
If Palestinians prisoners have been captured in war, then Israelis and their partners are either justified in conducting a defensive war or unjustified in conducting a war of aggression. If Israel is judged to be conducting a war of aggression, Israel and its enablers can be prosecuted as war criminals.
Thus Israel’s insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state may be an attempt to ward off the perception that Jews in Israel and beyond have committed war crimes.
Israel’s labeling of Palestinian prisoners of war as terrorists is more meaningful than it seems. It’s tied up with Israel as a Jewish state and the war that created and sustains it.
In this light, John Kerry may be subconsciously working through the caveats of caveats. The peace process may be a pretext to work out the conditions of Palestinian surrender to a militarily-victorious Israel.