Palestinian officials and the public have long pressed for the release of Palestinian prisoners, who are revered as heroes in government-controlled Palestinian media. Over the last several decades, Israel has released thousands of such prisoners, often times as goodwill gestures. This spring, President Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly insisted in talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the release of all Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of brutal crimes, as a pre-condition for resuming negotiations with Israel.
All too often, mainstream media outlets have whitewashed the terrorist acts and violent crimes of Palestinian prisoners by failing to mention the crimes at all or by falsely minimizing the degree of violence. In some cases, media outlets euphemistically refer to prisoners incarcerated since before 1994 as “political prisoners,” covering up the atrocities they carried out. CAMERA is the first to publish a detailed list (below), obtained from Israel’s Ministry of Justice, of 118 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, including their names and violent crimes.
The following is a sampling of some of the most egregious examples of the media’s whitewashing of violence on the part of Palestinian prisoners. A portion of them were subsequently corrected following communication from CAMERA or its affiliated sites, BBC Watch and CiF Watch.
Failure to Report the Crime
In several cases, media outlets reported about a prisoner’s detention, or efforts to gain his release, without noting why he is there in the first place. Thus, a Feb. 18, 2013 page-2 photo caption in Ha’aretz, accompanying a large, five-column image stated:
Palestinians in Ramallah yesterday holding placards depicting Samer Issawi, who is jailed in an Israeli prison and has been on hunger strike for 209 days. Palestinians have been protesting on Issawi’s behalf for several days.
As CAMERA reported at the time, Samer Issawi was sentenced to 26 years for attempted murder, belonging to an unrecognized (terror) organization, military training, and possession of weapons, arms and explosive materials. IDF spokesman Eytan Buchman elaborated that Issawi:
… was convicted of severe crimes, which including five attempts of intentional death. This included four shootings, between July 2001 and February 2002, in which Isawi and his partners fired on police cars and buses travelling between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. In one attack, a policeman was injured and required surgery. On October 30, 2001, Isawi, together with an accomplice, fired at two students walking from the Hebrew University campus to their car in a nearby parking lot. In another case, Isawi provided guns and explosive devices to a squad, who fired on a bus. Finally, in December 2001, Isawi ordered an attack on security personnel at Hebrew University, providing a squad with a pistol and a pipebomb. Two of the squad members tracked security personnel but opted not to execute the attack.
The BBC also consistently failed to report on the full extent of Issawi’s crimes, as well as those of others on hunger strike at the same time. For example, a BBC report from Feb. 18 2013 made no mention whatsoever of the terrorist activities of Samer Issawi, Ayman Sharawna, Tariq Qaadan and Jafar Ezzedine. As BBC Watch reported:
Ayman Sharawna, from Dura near Hebron, was also released under the Shalit deal in October 2011, by which time he had served ten years of a 38 year sentence for attempted murder and bomb-making. Sharawna is a member of the Hebron branch of Hamas and was rearrested on January 31st 2012 due to violating of the terms of his release by returning to Hamas activities. Shawarna was originally apprehended on May 10th 2002 when he and another terrorist planted an explosive device near a branch of Bank HaPoalim on HaAtzmaout Street in Be’er Sheva. The device malfunctioned, but despite that eighteen people were injured in the attack. Sharawna and his accomplice were caught fleeing the scene by members of the public and he was also found to have taken part in prior shooting attacks during the second Intifada.
Tariq Qaadan and Jafar Ezzedine are both senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives.
In a March 2013 report which was broadcast on several BBC platforms, Jon Donnison showcased a particular prisoner, with the description of the reasons for his imprisonment given in one laconic sentence: “Ammar Ziben is serving 32 life sentences in an Israeli prison for his involvement in bomb attacks in Jerusalem in 1997.”
According to Ziben’s organization – Hamas – there was rather more to Ziben’s “involvement”:
Ammar played an important role in resisting the occupation forces, at a time when most people were disenchanted with the occupation’s false promises of peace. Before his arrest, Ammar worked with Mohannad El-Taher, Ayman Halawa, and Mahmoud Abu Hannood. This was the group of Al-Qassam leaders who carried the burden of maintaining the resistance before Al-Aqsa Intifada, and escalated the resistance during the first 2 years of the Intifada.
In 1997, five martyrdom operations resulted 27 Israelis killed and 300 injured as a reaction against the Zionist daily arrest and crimes against the Palestinian people. The operations were also a price paid by the occupation for the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians in occupation jails. Ammar was in the operation room that oversaw the operations. [emphasis added]
Downplaying the Severity of the Violent Acts
On Oct. 20, 2011, AP ran a photo caption about Hamuda Saleh, released in the first stage of the Shalit deal, which grossly understated his terror acts and which severely exaggerated his prison sentence. The original caption stated that “he was sentenced to multiple life sentences for being part of the ‘Ezz Al-Din Al Qassam’ militia, the military wing of Hamas.” After CAMERA’s intervention, AP added that according to the prison service he had been convicted for 22 years for “premeditated murder, membership in an unrecognized organization, planting a bomb and shooting at people.”
Hamuda Saleh was also featured in a filmed BBC Arabic report on April 16, 2013, together with another former prisoner released in the Shalit deal, Nader Abu Turki. In that report no mention whatsoever was made of the two men’s crimes.
Nader Abu Turki from Hebron was a senior Hamas operative who was arrested in November 2002 and convicted of conspiracy to murder, stone-throwing, planting bombs and membership of the military wing of Hamas, for which he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
In a Dec. 18, 2011 report about the second stage of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, Ethan Bronner, then the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, understated the violent crime of released prisoner Izzedine Abu Sneineh, writing that he was arrested “for throwing stones and hanging Palestinian flags from telephone poles.”
CAMERA prompted the following correction (Dec. 21, 2011):
. . . .the article misstated Israeli charges against one of the freed prisoners, Izzedine Abu Sneineh, who had been arrested three years ago at age 15. Israel had accused him of weapons training, attempted murder and possession of explosives – not throwing stones and hanging Palestinian flags from telephone poles.
On NPR’s Aug. 6, 2003 “All Things Considered,” Julie McCarthy also wrongly reported that prisoner Ahmad Gnamat was held for years for throwing stones, when in fact he had produced explosives. Following communication from CAMERA, NPR corrected on Aug. 14:
In an August 6th story on the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners, we mistakenly described one of the freed men as having served five years in prison for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. In fact, he was sentenced for involvement in Hamas and producing explosives.
Taking the lead from radical NGO’s, such as Addameer and some pro-Palestinian and Palestinian Authority sites which refer to Palestinian prisoners convicted of violent acts including murder and attempted murder as “political prisoners,” a limited number of mainstream publications are beginning to adopt the egregious misnomer.
The euphemism, which distorts the clear meaning of a term which is widely understood as referring to those who are imprisoned merely for their dissenting political beliefs, has appeared in the Guardian and BBC.
. . . campaigners will make their way to the AGM of security specialists G4S this week, where they will voice concerns on issues as varied as: the death of asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga while under G4S guard (a decision on whether or not to prosecute will be made soon); charges for security to the Olympic Games (the same margin as usual, says G4S) ; and the group’s service contract with an Israeli jail that holds political prisoners. (Emphasis added.)
Harriet Sherwood’s April 9, 2013 report, about efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, discussed concessions demanded of Israel by Mahmoud Abbas before he will agree to resume negotiations:
The Palestinians also want the release of 123 political prisoners who have been in jail since before the Oslo accords were signed almost 20 years ago, and for Israel to present a map showing proposed borders. [Emphasis added]
After CiF Watch complained to the Guardian readers’ editor, the language in Sherwood’s report was revised to note that it is only the Palestinians who view them as “political prisoners.”
Also, an April 2, 2013 BBC report entitled “Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails protest death,” on the death of Palestinian prisoner Abu Hamdiyeh, included the following:
Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, from Hebron in the occupied West Bank, was serving a life sentence for attempted murder for his role in a foiled attempt to bomb a cafe in Jerusalem in 2002.
The issue of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails is an emotive one for Palestinians. Inmates are generally highly regarded despite the reasons for their detention. (Emphasis added.)
On April 3, 2013, during the State Department’s Daily Briefing, a journalist identified as Nadia – likely Nadia Bilbassy Charterswho works for Al-Arabiya and Middle Eastern Broadcast Center (MBC) – asked spokesperson Victoria Nuland the following question, referring to the pre-Oslo prisoners who Mahmoud Abbas has demanded need to be released in order to resume peace talks:
There were reports indicating that the Israelis were willing to release some political – Palestinian political prisonersarrested before ’94 as a goodwill gesture to bring – to entice the President Abbas to come back to the negotiation. Is this something that you have discussed with both sides and it has any kind of truth that might happen on this trip?
Who exactly are these approximately 120 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel since before 1994? While several Palestinian sources and some media oulets refer to them as “political prisoners,” data released by Israel’s Ministry of Justice, and published here for the first time, indicate that in fact these men were involved in terrorism or other brutal crimes, mostly involving murder or attempted murder of Israeli civilians or soldiers, tourists, or Palestinian civilians suspected of collaborating with Israel.
Below is CAMERA’s translation of the data provided by the Ministry of Justice on 118 pre-Oslo prisoners. The list is a direct translation of the Ministry’s material, and does not include added commentary or interpretation. There are some irregularities in the Ministry’s data which we left without comment. For instance, in a few cases, the prisoner’s affiliation is listed only as “Fronts,” and there is no further indication as to whether it is the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Also, in a handful of cases, the Ministry wrote that the names of the victims are “not indicated,” or that a prisoner was “apparently” involved in murder and that “not enough information was available for indexing.” We faithfully translated this information, incomplete as it is, from the Ministry of Justice. Finally, the Ministry includes a category which literally translates as “citizenship” or “nationality,” but which actually refers to the prisoner’s place of origin — Israel, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) or the Gaza Strip.
Pre Oslo Prisoners
Beyond the common understanding of the term “political prisoners” as those who are imprisoned for their political beliefs, the European Union last year took a step towards officially codifying the term. In a resolution passed by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, the EU Parliamentary Assembly set out:
“A person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a ‘political prisoner’:
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities. (SG/Inf(2001)34, paragraph 10).
Yet, as is clear given the Justice Ministry’s data, the pre-Oslo prisoners were engaged in terrorism or other violent criminal acts inconsistent with the EU definition of political prisoners. To call these men “political prisoners,” and to minimize or ignore the violence of post-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, is an egregious journalistic violation and a serious disservice to news consumers.
Research and writing by Adam Levick, Hadar Sela and Tamar Sternthal.