Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Why Palestinians and Hezbollah Seek a Prisoner Exchange

Fifty-three-year-old Ghazi Falah, an Arab with dual Israeli and Canadian citizenship and former professor at the University of Toronto (he lived in Toronto from 1992 to 2001), spent 22 days in an Israeli jail under suspicion that he was spying for organizations that were opposed to Israel—read Iran and Hezbollah. During his ordeal, Mr. Falah was often tied to a chair by his interrogators, and one session reportedly lasted as many as 60 hours.

Falah's mistake, if there was one, was to take pictures along the border between Israel and Lebanon, including one of an Israeli military antenna. Of course, the Israeli authorities who detained and kept him incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, couldn't care less about the fact that Mr. Falah is an expert on border dispute issues, or that his activities were purely academic in nature (which appears to be the conclusion the Israelis reached after detaining and interrogating Mr. Falah for 22 days).

Despite the treatment and the injustice of the detention, this story ended well, and Mr. Falah was released on July 30. Sadly, there are hundreds—thousands—of similar stories that have not seen such resolution. For years Israel has been arresting and detaining young Palestinian and Lebanese men on suspicion that they were supporting one of the many organizations that Israel believes are bent on its destruction. With no legal recourse or due process, and without assistance from state authorities (what authorities in the Palestinians' case) that can request their release, these individuals have absolutely no way to defend themselves against charges that quite frequently are either uncorroborated or altogether false. Israel's legendary intelligence services are indeed aggressive, but there is nothing reasonable or discriminate about their targeting of groups and individuals. From my own experience, their intelligence is often little better than a sieve, cases with so many holes in them that they are practically useless. But that doesn't matter within Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in and around Lebanon; Israel arrests and detains and uses illegal interrogation practices (a polite euphemism if ever there was one) with impunity. This should not come as a surprise, given Israel's overly paranoid view of the other. What it does with bombs it also does very well with detentions and disappearances.

Mr. Falah's dual citizenship probably saved his life. Absent this, he probably would have disappeared into Israel's vast prison underworld. But there are many, many more people who have been done a similar injustice.

Individuals whose intention truly was to commit terrorism (in the true sense of the word, as opposed to how Israel defines it) do belong in jail. These individuals made a choice, and that choice led them down the path of violence. But even then they should be granted due process, which they certainly are not. The problem is the hundreds, possibly thousands, who were disappeared and are still being detained on erroneous charges. Their disappearance, without any means to clear their names, is unacceptable.

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