Why the Palestinian Prisoners Are Central to the Israel-Hamas Hostage Deal

Why the Palestinian Prisoners Are Central to the Israel-Hamas Hostage Deal

Israel released a list of 300 Palestinian prisoners who could be freed as part of a highly-anticipated hostage exchange deal with Hamas amid the ongoing war.

The release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel—a number Palestinian officials and nonprofit organizations say has ballooned during the current war—has been critical in negotiations over any temporary truce and release of Hamas hostages.

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Israel has experienced division over what concessions to make to Hamas in order to bring hostages home, with the families of some pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange, per Hamas’ initial demands.

Hamas took more than 200 people hostage during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Hamas has already released four hostages—an American mother and daughter on Oct. 20 and two Israeli women on Oct. 23, both for “humanitarian reasons” according to the militant group—in deals brokered by Qatar and Egypt’s governments.

As of November, Israeli nonprofit organization HaMoked reported that the Israel Prison Service (IPS) was holding 6,704 Palestinian prisoners on security grounds, a jump from 5,192 in October and months before, based on government data. TIME has reached out to IPS to confirm this number.

What are the terms of the exchange?

The two sides in the war came to an agreement for Hamas to release at least 50 women and children held hostage over the course of four days in exchange for Israel pausing fighting and freeing 150 Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas said in a statement on Telegram that Israel agreed to stop air traffic over the south of the Gaza Strip for the four days of military pause, while air traffic in the north will be halted for six hours daily, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Israel will also allow around 300 aid trucks, including fuel, to enter Gaza daily from Egypt, Axios reported.

According to the Jerusalem Post, after the initial group of 150 prisoners are released in exchange for the 50 hostages to be released by Hamas, an additional three Palestinians from the list will be released for every additional hostage Hamas releases. The release of every ten additional abductees will result in another day of respite from fighting, the Israeli government said.

The first temporary ceasefire is expected to begin at 7 a.m. local time on Nov. 24 and the first group of hostages will be handed over at 4 p.m. that day, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, which helped negotiate the deal, announced during a news conference on Nov. 23.

Who are the prisoners that could be released?

The Israeli government published a list of 300 prisoners who could be released if Hamas frees all the hostages. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and Department of Justice have not yet responded to a request from TIME about how the prisoners on the list were selected or who decides the order of those released.

A majority of those on the list are teenage boys. A Sky News analysis found that around 10%–33 are women.

A similar number are 19-years-old or older, while 146 are 18-years-old. A total of 124—just over 40%—are under the age of 18, the United Nations’ definition of a child. Of those, 76 are 17 years old, 37 are 16 years old, six are 15 years old and five are 14 years old.

Why are they imprisoned?

Most prisoners were listed as accused of multiple offenses, ranging from throwing or spraying stones, creating explosives, damage to a security area, carrying a knife, attacking a police officer, arson and more. 

Netanyahu told the public that no one to be released was accused of murder. A TIME review of the list found more than a dozen prisoners accused of attempted murder, among other charges.

Some of the charges included being associated with a designated terrorist organization. TIME found more than 40 prisoners listed by Israel as affiliated with Hamas. 

Some prisoners are listed as “under arrest,” without a prison sentence. One 18-year-old on the list has been detained “under arrest” since Oct. 2022 on a charge of damage to the security of the area. 

What is the situation for Palestinian prisoners?

The current number of Palestinian prisoners includes 2,313 sentenced detainees, 2,321 remand detainees and 2,070 administrative detainees, according to government data reported by HaMoked. 

Remand means detainees are under interrogation or charged and awaiting trial as part of the criminal process, while administrative detention is “preventative” detention without charges or trial, Jessica Montell, the organization’s executive director, told TIME in an email. 

Data shows that there has been a “big jump in administrative detainees” since Oct. 7 to an all-time high, Montell said. Half of all those detained over the past month have been placed on administrative detention, “which should be a rare, extreme measure,” she argues. 

The data mostly reflects recent arrests from the West Bank, although it also includes people from Gaza serving sentences from before Oct. 7 and 105 people held as “unlawful combatants” from Gaza—defined in Israeli law as “a person who has participated either directly or indirectly in hostile acts against the State of Israel or is a member of a force perpetrating hostile acts against the State of Israel.”

Montell’s organization is receiving complaints from families regarding more recent detention of Palestinians in Gaza, but “we don’t know the scale of these detentions,” she said. 

The numbers also don’t include an estimated 4,000 day laborers from Gaza with Israel work permits who were held after Oct. 7, Israeli media reported.

Montell said her organization received calls from 500 families of the workers and has submitted habeas corpus petitions on their behalf. The court responded that 2,900 had been returned to Gaza, but the number of those remaining in Israeli detention is unknown, she said. 

Montell said her organization is concerned about reported increases in violence in the course of detentions and in prisons, which she said are currently very overcrowded. Visits by attorneys are restricted and family visits have been canceled, she added. 

Nonprofit organizations including Save the Children have expressed concern in the past about Palestinian children held in Israeli detention and the treatment they allegedly receive.

The United Nations says that detention of juveniles under the age of 18 should be a last resort and children should not be tortured or subjected to cruel or degrading treatment.

TIME has reached out to IPS in regards to the criticism of administrative detention and treatment of prisoners, including children.

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