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How hostages and prisoners have been used in the long-running Mideast conflict


The extension of the cease-fire was announced after Hamas release dozens of hostages that they took from Israel on October 7. In return, Israel has agreed to free 150 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. So why is the temporary cease-fire structured this way, and what does each side hope to gain? Shibley Telhami is here to discuss that. He's the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Professor, how did negotiators arrive at this particular ratio - one hostage held by Hamas for every three prisoners held by Israel?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, obviously, the exact ratios - it's not known why they arrived at this particular ratio, but it is clear that the - Hamas was asking for a lot more. Obviously, Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners. It is said now that Israel is holding about 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, including about 3,000 held without charges. So it's a huge number of prisoners. So clearly, Hamas originally asked for release - exchange of all the hostages for all the prisoners, which would have meant the ratio would be much larger. In the past - in past exchanges, the ratio was much larger - for one Israeli soldier, there were hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Remember that it's very easy for Israel to arrest Palestinians. They are under occupation. Israel has a military. It can go into any town or village and arrest any number of people at any given time. In fact, they've arrested about 3,000 since October - the October attack. So the ratio is not particularly surprising. In fact, it's relatively low in comparison to the previous ratios.

MARTÍNEZ: Does it dehumanize Palestinians - this ratio - as if their lives aren't as valuable?

TELHAMI: I don't think, in the exchange ratio, it dehumanizes. I think where - it comes in more in the casualty ratio because, obviously, the Palestinians would like to have as many prisoners released. And, as I said, it's much easier for Israel to arrest. But the casualty ratio is where it comes in. For example, in the West Bank and Gaza, even before the attack, the typical ratio has been about - for every Israeli killed, about 7 or 8 Palestinians are killed. And in the current war since October 7, for every Israeli killed, more than 10 Palestinians are killed. So the ratio has been more like 10 to 1. And that, I think, is one that is seen to be much more dehumanizing.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Now the remaining hostages held by Hamas include grown men and soldiers. Do you think that changes the calculus on both sides in determining who gets released?

TELHAMI: I think, up to a point, yes. Because I think the military - when it comes to soldiers, the ratio may become different. And at the moment, obviously, for Hamas, it's - holding onto women and children is a problematic issue, obviously. Aside from the humanitarian disaster that that entails, it is also a public relations issue. So obviously they're more anxious to get that out of the way.

And also, in exchange for that, they're highlighting the fact that Israel is holding a lot of children. Obviously, Israel has held thousands of children over the years, many without charges, and they like to highlight that. A lot of people didn't know that Israel was holding children, and I think, in a way, they benefit from that. But as you get into the military, that becomes a bit of a different game.

MARTÍNEZ: How much do you think Hamas cares about public relations in this case?

TELHAMI: Oh, they care. They care, obviously, a lot. And it's clear, for example, in terms of how they wanted to show that they treated the prisoners well and so forth, they care. But at the core of the prisoner issue, though - don't underestimate how genuine this issue is. This issue, particularly - obviously it's important to Israelis. We know they want their people back. Everybody wants their loved ones back. They were taken in a horrific attack on October 7.

But for Palestinians, there are three reasons why this issue so resonates with people. It - because it goes to the core of occupation - the scale of it, first of all. Probably up to a million people have been arrested by Israel over the course of the occupation. This is a population of 5 million between the West Bank and Gaza.

Second, it also underscores the injustice of the two-tiered system, where the settlers in the West Bank face civil courts, and they're rarely ever prosecuted. But on the Palestinian side, it's military courts with almost 100% conviction.

And third, it shows that - how violent the occupation is even when the gun is not fired because you can have a military unit go into a house at 2 o'clock in the morning and arrest people on incitement just for speech and hold them without charges indefinitely.

MARTÍNEZ: Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. Professor, thanks.

TELHAMI: My pleasure.

MARTÍNEZ: For more coverage and for differing views and analysis of the conflict, go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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