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Monday, 27 June 2011

Gilad Shalit, Palestinian prisoners and the Liberal 1984 Group

Good for Amnesty International for petitioning Hamas to improve the appalling conditions in which Gilad Shalit is held. I have signed and I urge others to do so; also, if you're an MP, you may also wish to sign EDM 1983. I suppose that Amnesty ought really to be calling for Gilad Shalit's actual release, but campaigning to improve the dire conditions in which he is held is a lot better than nothing. It is impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Gilad Shalit to Israeli public opinion, and if you care about the peace process, then you need to care about Israeli public opinion. It's also simply a humanitarian outrage. Nothing can justify this kidnapping and the manner of Gilad Shalit's detention. 

Israel's holding of Palestinian prisoners, in modern prisons with proper checks and balances, is not morally equivalent to Hamas' 'disappearing' of Gilad Shalit. This is especially the case given that such prisoners receive visits from the Red Cross, who have been flagrantly denied access to Gilad Shalit. Having said that, all prisoners, in all countries, are entitled to be treated in an appropriate manner. Israel, like Britain, is a liberal democracy, and liberal democracies have high standards when it comes to how prisoners are treated. In my purely personal opinion, Prime Minister Netanyahu is wrong to have announced a special revocation of privileges for a particular category of Palestinian prisoners. I am not alone in having strong doubts about this latest prime ministerial policy initiative; just as Israel's critics are wrong to link the question of Gilad Shalit's release to the question of how Israel treats its prisoners, so it is wrong to make the same linkage in reverse.

Any prisoner in any Israeli jail should be entitled to the same rights as any other prisoner in any other Israeli jail, just as any prisoner in any British jail should be entitled to the same rights as any other prisoner in any other British jail. No politician should ever seek applause by announcing especially bad treatment for a particular category of convicted criminal - politics and the criminal justice system do not always successfully mix, as recent British experience sadly proves. 

I am not - repeat not - suggesting that keeping a criminal in a modern, proper prison and denying him some privileges is in any way morally equivalent to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. The two things are not the same, and I am not saying that they are. However, just as I believe that the brutality of 7/7 did not entitle the last Labour Government to introduce over-long periods of detention without trial in the UK, so I do not believe that the brutality of Gilad Shalit's incarceration would entitle the Israeli Government to increase the severity of the prison regime faced by some inmates in the country's jails. 

The first political meeting that I ever attended was of the Liberal 1984 Group in 1985 ('1984' being a reference to the George Orwell novel), which campaigned for civil liberties in the UK. The meeting was addressed by Clive Ponting and we watched a documentary about Cathy Massiter; the atmosphere of that time is well captured in faintly silly films like Defence of the Realm and Hidden Agenda, which implied that British civil liberties were seriously under threat from the Thatcher Government (which I have since grown up enough to realise was, shall we say, something of an exaggeration). So I have a long history of calling on the government of the UK, which is obviously a liberal democracy, to observe the highest possible standards when it comes to civil liberties, so I am not being unreasonable in calling on all other liberal democracies, Israel included, to do the same.

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