The news that detainees are to be released by both Hamas and by the Israeli Government is welcome; of course anyone detained for whatever reason suffers and so do their families. When the detention is in the context of a war and not as a result of due process, this suffering is even harder.
The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, rightly comments on the deal struck by Hamas and the Government of Israel on the exchange of Gilad Shalit for over 1000 Palestinian detainees.
But the fact that she keeps her statement to one paragraph which welcomes Gilad Shalit’s imminent return home and recognizes the ordeal of his family without any mention of the Palestinians who are to be released as if they and their families had not suffered, suggests double standards which are not acceptable in a situation where the EU presents itself as a potential honest broker in what has to be recognized as a long and complex conflict.
If it is possible for Israeli citizens to say, as Uri Avnery says in response to the prisoner exchange and after having spoken of the release of Gilad Shalit: ‘On this day I can also feel happy for hundreds of Palestinian families who get back their sons, some after decades in prison’, then it should be possible for Ashton to acknowledge both sides in this prisoner exchange too.
Indeed, the fact that Ashton fails to even mention the suffering on the Palestinian side in this statement is almost inevitably going to fan flames which would be better doused. This is not to deny that many of the Palestinian prisoners being released or due to be released have been convicted of serious offences. The courage of both sides to step beyond entrenched positions and agree to this exchange may be the basis for engagement with those who still espouse violence to proactively find non-violent ways to move forward. There may be a role for the EU here.
What is at issue in the context of this statement is that the EU – and Catherine Ashton as its representative in these matters – need to reflect the humanity of all those involved in this conflict. That would reflect its own values and principles and its commitment to human rights, to international law and to peace.
One particular issue of concern that has been raised by many organizations and individuals since the first wave of the prisoner exchange is the fact that some of the Palestinian prisoners held by Israel (and not included in the recent first wave of releases) are children under the age of 18, many of whom have not yet been convicted. According to figures published by DCI-Palestine (page 2), on 1 October 2011 there were 164 children (aged 12 to 17) in Israeli detention facilities. 35 of them were under 16. Over 80 were held in pre-trial detention.
Ashton makes no reference to them and has not done since the first wave of the exchange occurred. This, too, appears to show a lack of concern for the suffering of some of the families in the region. No doubt, Ashton is concerned about these issues; she is ill-advised not to be seen to be concerned. The approach taken is one that implies that justice and security for one side is achievable without justice and security for the other side. It is not designed to build confidence in the EU as a credible actor.