Guest post by Ariel Bigio
In the United States and Israel, discourse about the goals of prisoner transfer is often framed in a security context. How prisoner transfers are discussed by national leaders reveals justifications, both in terms of bringing people home and transferring others to their home countries. For the United States, the motivation behind prisoner transfer stems from protecting American citizens imprisoned abroad. Israel’s security context is more military based-- a social and political issue involving soldiers and terrorism. The United States has a general prisoner transfer program while Israel engages in one-time transfers on a case-by-case basis. Israel would benefit from developing a prisoner transfer program because it is another diplomatic tool that a state can utilize in its arsenal in strengthening international relations and garnering further trust.
The United States’ prisoner transfer program is run through the Department of Justice in the International Prisoner Transfer Unit (IPTU). The program began in 1977 through a bilateral treaty between the United States and Mexico. There are two aims for prisoner transfer. The first is that rehabilitation will be better served in the offenders’ home country where they can be closer to family and friends. The second aim is to provide more humane conditions than those found in foreign prisons where inmates are faced with a new culture, language, and standard of prison life. An article from April 11 published on the United States Courts website gives a great summary of the benefits to Americans of prisoner transfer.
Israel is not unfamiliar with prisoner transfers; however these have been in the context of one-time agreements, and not a general policy. Under the Gaza- Jericho agreement of 1994, Israel agreed to release 5,000 Palestinian prisoners as part of the negotiation process. In 2008, Israel exchanged five Lebanese prisoners and 199 Lebanese bodies buried in the North of Israel in exchange for two bodies of Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah. In 2011, 1,027 prisoners were transferred to Gaza, the West Bank, or abroad in exchange for a captured Israeli solider named Gilad Shalit. These transfers or exchanges are precipitated by a negotiation with an intended outcome. In comparison, the United States transfer program is an agreement between countries that promotes transfer and precedes the necessity for negotiation.
While there are definite criticisms of the implementation of the United States’ transfer policy, the importance of these treaties is paramount for setting precedence and enabling other avenues of communication and cooperation between foreign governments. This is an important tool that Israel can use as negotiations of the peace process continue with the Palestinian Authority. Israel spends almost one-fifth of its national budget on defense and it is an important investment for Israel to consider the transfer program. Prisoner transfer is a strategic policy with global implications. National decisions have a global impact in the relations between states. The reality of the situation is that as the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians continues, it would be an important diplomatic policy for Israel to implement a prisoner transfer program.
Ariel Bigio currently lives in New York. Ariel worked at the Office of the United States Trade Representative and at the Department of Justice in the International Prisoner Transfer Unit, both in Washington, DC. She earned a B.A. in American Studies and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland and spent a semester in Ghana with the School for International Training. Ariel spent two years in Israel working with Israeli and American youth.