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Tug of War

CNN reporters take us on-the-ground in Israel to document the escalating conflict and what it means for the rest of the world.

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Why the Release of Palestinian Prisoners Looks Different
Tug of War
Nov 29, 2023

As part of the hostage deal with Hamas, Israel has released over 100 Palestinians prisoners and detainees being held in Israeli jails. However, thousands remain behind bars – some of whom are detained without a trial or formal charges. In this episode, CNN Chief International Investigative Correspondent Nima Elbagir explains why the reunions in the West Bank look very different from the Israeli homecomings.

Correction: This episode has been updated to correct that CNN contacted the Israeli Prime Minister's Office for response, not the IDF. The IDF offer of a briefing came in response to a separate CNN piece about released Palestinian prisoners.

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Episode Transcript
David Rind
'We've talked about how ever since October 7th, Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank have been on edge. The threat of violence is never far away. For example, on Tuesday night, the head of Doctors Without Borders said he and workers were essentially trapped inside a hospital in the Jenin refugee camp as the Israeli military conducted what it called a counter-terrorism operation right outside. Two Palestinians died because ambulances could not reach them in time. And remember, tensions were already high even before October 7th. In recent years, Israeli settlers have been setting up communities for themselves in the West Bank. These settlements are considered illegal under international law because the area is considered occupied territory. Palestinians and much of the international community view it as part of a future Palestinian state. And in some cases, settlers have physically attacked Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned that violence. But military raids are a near daily occurrence. I say all this because this is the place many of the Palestinian prisoners and detainees released in recent days as part of the hostage deal with Hamas are returning to. But as these people reunite with their loved ones, many are finding that freedom comes at a cost.
Nima Elbagir
It creates this sense that Palestinians are fundamentally unequal in very real, very legal ways.
David Rind
Today, a look at the two systems of law that continues to fill Israeli prisons with Palestinians. From CNN, this is Tug of War. I'm David Rind.
David Rind
Nima Elbagir is CNN's Chief International Investigative Correspondent. She's in Jerusalem right now. I caught up with her on Tuesday night.
David Rind
Nima, is part of this hostage deal with Hamas. We have seen Israel release over a hundred Palestinian prisoners and detainees. So can you explain the context here? Like, who are these people?
Nima Elbagir
These are Palestinians that have been imprisoned by Israeli forces. So the prisoners that have been released are just a small percentage of the number of Palestinians that are currently incarcerated in Israeli jails. Some from before the October 7th Hamas terror attack on Israel. And then what we've seen after the October 7th attack is this huge rise, this wave of arrests. At the moment, the Palestinian Prisoners Commission says that the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are over 8000. They also have about 3000 held under administrative detention, which is an Israeli policy or an Israeli law that really that enables them to hold those that they believe are potentially capable or potentially suspected of wanting. And I'm using a lot of caveats there because that's really how how loose this is of wanting to commit a future crime. So if you are held under administrative detention, then you can be held indefinitely. And what makes that possible is that there are two systems of law here. You have the law that governs Israeli citizens, which is Israeli civil law, but then you have the law that governs Palestinians in the territories under Israeli military occupation, and that's military law. So it creates this sense that Palestinians are fundamentally unequal in very real, very legal ways.
David Rind
There have been a lot more Palestinians released than the hostages in Gaza just in terms of the numbers. And so for those who have been freed thus far, you've been following some reunions that have happened. What is the moment been like?
Nima Elbagir
I can only describe it based on video that was released to us by a Palestinian family because Itamar Ben Gvir who is Israel's far right extremist, essentially, national security minister decreed that those prisoners being released were terrorists, which is not true. We actually crunched the numbers. The 300 pool of prisoners that were eligible for release was published by the Department of Justice. And when we crunched the numbers, 80% of them had been detained, just detained. No charge, no trial. Were just detained. Wow. So by saying that he was able to invoke this idea that therefore, to support the release of these prisoners would be support for terrorism, just celebrating the release of their loved ones would be Ben Gvir we're told, ordered the Israeli forces to treat that as support for terrorism. So we weren't allowed anywhere near these reunions. When people journalists have tried to go to homes of these released prisoners. We've seen videos where Israeli forces were very aggressive, very forceful. So in order to get any sense of what it was like, we we had to wait until the families released videos of those reunions for us. And we had one prisoner, Malak Salman, who had been accused of attempted stabbing when she was 16, given a ten year jail sentence. Her family deny completely maintain her innocence, took it up to the Supreme Court a year ago, shaved off. She was given nine years. She served eight of those. But the moment when she and her mother hugged. Her mother screamed. And we actually played that on air. And out of all of the work that we have done, this is one of those where we have received messages and people have got in touch from around the world because I think that scream, the anguish in her voice. I feel like it was something that all of us could immediately understand. You know, the sense of loss, this sense of joy, the sense of disbelief. Right.
Malak (translated)
It was painful because I was leaving the sisters I made inside prison, and I feel like my freedom was paid for with the blood of the 14,000 Gazans killed.
Nima Elbagir
We were able to go see them afterwards and interview Malak and her mother. And Malak, who's now 23, was amazingly poised. It was her mother who kept holding her hand in the interview kissing her. You could tell that she just wanted to keep touching her. She couldn't believe that she was home.
David Rind
We'll be right back.
David Rind
Welcome back to Tug of War and my conversation with CNN's Nima Elbagir.
David Rind
And just to be clear, when you say administrative detention, those people have not been charged with any specific crime and there's been no legal process that's been played out, right?
Nima Elbagir
Absolutely. Nor is there any legal obligation to charge them to or to make public the evidence that they have against them. And they can be they can be detained indefinitely because every six months, the authorities, the Israeli authorities have the right to put forward a request to renew that administrative detention to basically hold them.
David Rind
And that's how the numbers get so big in these jails.
Nima Elbagir
So at the moment, out of the 8000 plus Palestinians held, 3000 plus are under administrative detention. Well, so it's quite worrying is that when you look at the list that the Department of Justice has released, there's also a large amount of prisoners. In fact, the majority of the prisoners on the list of 300 who are just held under detention, and yet they are in jail. They have a, you know, a crime next to their name, whether it's stabbing or explosions or whatever. That crime is now associated with this person's name. But they've only been detained. They haven't been charged.
Fatma Shaheen (translated)
They accused me of carrying out a stabbing. It's not true. They opened fire on me. I was hit in the spine with two bullets. Two vertebrae were damaged. They replaced them with titanium.
Nima Elbagir
I mean, one of the prisoners who was released for admission. She has attempted murder by her name, but she was just attacked. She was detained for seven months.
Fatma Shaheen (translated)
It was forbidden for my relatives to visit me or even the lawyers. I was not allowed to make any calls.
Nima Elbagir
So she's been released now. She was shot by Israeli soldiers at the time when she was detained. She says she she didn't do anything. They say she attempted to stab a settler, although there's there's no evidence of any kind of bodily harm. And she was kept for seven months. And she's very lucky. She she I mean, she's she's paralyzed from the waist down. So lucky is probably the wrong word to use, but she's more fortunate than those who remain inside the Israeli prisons because she has been released. But she has been released with attempted murder by her name. And no recourse. There's no recourse to go back and appeal and ask for evidence to be heard.
David Rind
Nima, it does seem like while the truce has given Palestinians in Gaza a breather, albeit a very small one, in the grand scheme of all the devastation there, the occupied West Bank remains this place of simmering tension, if not outright violence. And you've kind of alluded to some of the crackdowns there. So are we going to see more of these detentions going forward regardless of what is happening on the ground in Gaza?
Nima Elbagir
'David, They are arresting Palestinians daily. And the reality is that completely understandably, October 7th was a moment of of of horror, of a fear of heartbreak and anguish for so many Israelis. But I think what has happened since when you hear the rhetoric from some of those hard right politicians, especially Itamar Ben-gvir, the national security minister, that this feels like an opportunity to drive home what they have always believed, which is the Palestinians do not belong on this land. We have taken this land and every Palestinian must be treated as a source of suspicion. And so for them, this is this is the opportunity when they have public opinion behind them. And it's important, actually, to remind those listening that these are the same people who didn't want to agree to the hostage prisoner swap in the first place. Mm hmm. They said the IDF has to be allowed to continue fighting and the IDF has to release the hostages. The families of hostages staged a protest inside the Knesset, inside Israel's governing body, shouting at these far right members.
Man (hebrew)
Nima Elbagir
And this really stuck with me. One family of a hostage said, You care more about talking about dead Arabs than you do about saving Jews. And so I think sometimes at a distance, that context is lost. So the hostages and the prisoners are an incredibly important part of this. But this is also about what this Israeli government wants to do with Palestinians.
David Rind
Hmm. Nima, thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Nima Elbagir
Thank you.
David Rind
Tug of War is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz, Taylor Galgano and me, David Rind. Our senior producer is Haley Thomas. Dan Dzula is our technical director and Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. We get support from Alex Mannaseri, Robert Mathers, John Dianora, Leni Steinhart, James Andrust, Nicole Pesaruand Lisa Namerow. Special thanks to Caroline Paterson, Barbara Arvanitidis, Alex Platt and Katie Hinman. We'll be back on Friday with another update. Talk to you then.