The Abolitionist Logic of “Everyone for Everyone”

A call from the families of hostages contains the seed of true safety.

Dan Berger
December 1, 2023

A released Palestinian prisoner reunites with family members in Dura, November 29th, 2023.

Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

One video shows Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah just released from Israeli prisons disembarking from Red Cross buses and tearfully embracing their mothers amid cheering crowds thousands deep. In another, nine-year-old Ohad Munder—who was held hostage by Hamas along with his mother and grandmother—jumps into his father’s arms, the joy palpable as the parent sweeps his child off the ground. These scenes of jubilation and relief have circulated widely since November 24th, when, after seven weeks of an Israeli military assault that killed at least 15,000 Palestinians, Israel and Hamas agreed to a four-day ceasefire, which was extended for an additional three days before expiring this morning. The original deal, which went into effect on Friday, hinged on a trade of confined people, all women and children: Hamas would release 50 hostages seized during its October 7th attack in exchange for 150 Palestinians incarcerated by Israel. Each of the two subsequent days-long extensions were contingent on further exchanges; 105 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners were released during this period.

These temporary and fragile agreements, though welcome, are but the shell of a more robust proposal put to Israel weeks ago—one that charts a path toward a much more rigorous vision of change. On October 28th—as Israel cut internet and electricity in Gaza after two weeks of aerial bombardments that had already killed more than 7,000 people—representatives for the family members of people taken hostage by Hamas approached Benjamin Netanyahu with a simple demand: “Everyone for everyone.” The Israeli government, they said, should meet the terms laid out by Hamas and release the more than 5,000 Palestinians in its prisons in exchange for hundreds of hostages. “Your first and only commitment is to return them all home,” one of the representatives told the Israeli government. “Everyone for everyone, and it doesn’t matter what price.”

The government flatly rejected the proposal. Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant dismissed the idea of a prisoner exchange as “psychological games.” In a revealing turn of phrase, he said that freeing the hostages is only “part of the victory” Israel seeks—a victory that Israeli officials have variously described as eradicating Hamas, destroying Gaza’s infrastructure, and expelling Palestinians from the territory. Even as Gallant’s formulation underscored the fact that securing the release of the captive Israelis and foreign nationals exists in a broader field of state priorities, the Israeli government leveraged the hostages as a bottomline justification for its mounting aggression in Gaza. “The greater the pressure, the greater the chances [of successfully retrieving the hostages],” Netanyahu told the families, telegraphing the state’s position that militarism is the only sure-fire route to Jewish safety. To exert that “pressure,” Netanyahu consolidated a previously fractured political body through the formation of a “unity government” to pursue a “long war.” Yet, early on, the prime minister refused Hamas’s proposal for a ceasefire in exchange for some of the hostages, continuing a bombardment campaign that Hamas has alleged has killed dozens of hostages already, and which the families of hostages have pointed out directly endangers the others’ lives.

Though it is more immediately a pragmatic demand than an injunction for total transformation, “everyone for everyone” nonetheless proposes a vital alternative to the state script—rejecting the government’s willingness to sacrifice hostages not only as collateral damage in Israel’s current war but also in pursuit of the war’s larger aims of Palestinian death and displacement. To return Israelis to their communities and the incarcerated Palestinians to theirs does not dismantle the underlying structure of Israeli apartheid. Still, in affirming a program of mass decarceration, the families of hostages have punctured the enclosures of Israeli civic discourse, bringing the possibility of collective freedom for Palestinian prisoners into the frame. In this urgent plea of people desperate for their loved ones to be returned, we might locate a protean abolitionist vision, a way out of the zero-sum framework where the safety of some is mobilized as justification for the harm of others. From within a colonial system that insists that life is disposable, the proposal set forth by the families of the hostages contains the seed of a radically transformed society—one which grants, in the words of prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that “where life is precious, life is precious.”

Captivity is a constitutive part of Palestinian life under occupation. Prior to Hamas’s attack on October 7th, Israel incarcerated more than 5,200 Palestinians—most of them residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem—across two dozen prisons and detention centers. Some West Bank residents are incarcerated due to a still-operant military order issued following the 1967 War that effectively criminalized civic activities (e.g. gatherings of more than ten people without a permit, distributing political materials, displaying flags) as “incitement and hostile propaganda actions.” There are currently hundreds of such military orders, which criminalize anything that might be construed as resistance to the occupation. This surfeit of activities made illegal for Palestinians authorizes mass imprisonment: According to a recent estimate by the United Nations, one million Palestinians have at one time been incarcerated by Israel, “including tens of thousands of children.” One in five Palestinians, and two in five Palestinian men, have been arrested at some point in their lives, and, as of 2021, more than 100 Palestinian children faced up to 20 years in prison for throwing stones.

Not all who are arrested face charges. Israel often and increasingly makes use of “administrative detention,” a relic of the British Mandate era, which allows for indefinite incarceration without a charge or trial, ostensibly for the purpose of gathering evidence. It was a hallmark of apartheid South Africa and has been used to repress opposition in Egypt, England, India, the United States, and elsewhere, especially in the context of anti-immigration and “counter-terrorism” programs. “Since March 2002, not a single month has gone by without Israel holding at least 100 Palestinians in administrative detention,” the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem notes; often the number is much higher. Prior to October 7th, more than 20% of Palestinian prisoners were administrative detainees; 233 of the 300 Palestinians on Israel’s release list negotiated last week were administrative detainees, Al Jazeera noted. According to the Palestinian prisoner organization Addameer, imprisoned Palestinians report being beaten, threatened, strip searched, and denied healthcare and contact with their families. Palestinians currently incarcerated, as well as those freed in recent days, report that conditions have worsened since October 7th. Meanwhile, even as this prisoner release proceeds, Israel continues to ramp up arrests: As of Tuesday, 180 Palestinian prisoners have been released as part of the ceasefire exchange, but during the same period, it arrested Palestinians at nearly the same rate. Today, more than 7,000 Palestinians are incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

Nowhere is Israel’s carceral regime clearer than in Gaza, the 140-square-mile area often described as an “open-air prison.” Gaza’s residents, now an estimated 2.2 million people—80% of whom are refugees or descendents of refugees forced to flee in the mass expulsions surrounding the founding of the State of Israel that Palestinians call the Nakba—have been hemmed in by a land, air, and sea blockade since 2006. As with Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons, who for years have waged hunger strikes, protested, and written about the horrors of incarceration, Gazans have struggled mightily against their confinement. In 2018–19, they held weekly nonviolent protests at the border under the name Great March of Return. Israel responded with brutal violence, killing 260 people and wounding 20,000 others, many of whom were permanently disabled. A week into Israel’s current assault on Gaza, Ahmed Abu Artema, one of the co-founders of the Great March of Return, wrote an impassioned plea in The Nation, calling for the world to “help us tear down the wall, end our imprisonment, and fulfill our dreams of liberation.” On October 24th, an Israeli airstrike severely wounded Artema and killed five members of his family, including his 13-year-old son.

It is precisely in such contexts of radical asymmetry that we find the history of hostage-taking: In the last half-century, under-resourced combatants from Palestine to Brazil to the United States and beyond have used hostages to gain political leverage. Militants, whose own lives are not valued by the powers they face, capture those whose lives they assume are deemed more valuable. This strategy often succeeds in shifting the terms of the conversation—asserting the previously dismissed hostage-takers as political actors whose demands must be negotiated. But the same dynamic that leads militants to take hostages is why the tactic so often fails: The prison state fundamentally devalues life, and ultimately may sacrifice hostages to preserve its rule. Israeli officials have said as much. “We have to be cruel now and not think too much about the hostages,” finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a cabinet meeting as Israel launched its war.

This conundrum figured centrally in anti-imperialist armed struggle in the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s. In 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson took a judge, district attorney, and three jurors hostage in a California courtroom in an attempt to free Black prisoners, including his older brother. But the presence of hostages did not stop prison guards from opening fire on Jackson, paralyzing one hostage and resulting in the death of another as they killed Jackson and two of his comrades. In 1971, prisoners at the New York state prison of Attica took 39 guards hostage with a set of demands aimed at moving toward “the demise of these prisons.” When New York state troopers retook the prison after a four-day rebellion, they killed 29 prisoners and 10 hostages. The next year, Palestinian militants from Black September took Israeli athletes hostage during the Olympics in Munich in an effort to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as well as two incarcerated German revolutionaries; the Israeli government’s refusal to negotiate alongside the German authorities’ bungled rescue mission resulted in the murder of all of the hostages by the militants. In 2014, after the Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin was reported missing during an invasion of the Southern Gaza strip, the Israeli army enacted the Hannibal directive—a controversial measure in place until 2016 specifying that “kidnapping must be stopped by all means, even at the price of striking and harming our own forces”—firing at the area where Goldin was last seen. Soon after, Goldin was declared dead. Those who take hostages wager that the lives of their temporary captives will be valued more than their own. But the prison state bets everything on preserving its dominion.

Hostages might secure attention for a cause and temporarily change the terms of engagement, but they cannot bring about a paradigm shift such that the lives of the hostage-takers—or life in general—becomes valued. In the context of Israeli colonialism, this means that hostage-taking might bring Palestinian prisoners into the frame of international attention (indeed, in 2004, Hezbollah secured the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners after taking an Israeli colonel hostage; in 2011, Hamas secured the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier they’d held in Gaza for five years), but it cannot upend the dominant framework of the Israeli state: Where Zionism equates Jewish safety with Israeli statehood, insisting that only a mighty ethnostate can keep Jews safe, it reinforces the idea that Jewish safety is always imminently threatened. From this vantage point, the proliferation of Palestinian prisoners is understood, at best, as an unfortunate consequence of a necessary structure. Joe Biden endorsed this position when he said “without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who’s secure.” It is a threat masquerading as a promise, intending to reinforce the illusion that the State of Israel is necessary to prevent another Holocaust, and keeping Jews in a constant state of fear.

But safety is not something that can be achieved in perpetuity through the fortification of borders. Safety is a set of social relationships. The abolitionist vision of safety, as US anti-prison organizations Critical Resistance and INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence defined it in a 2001 statement, is “based on a collective commitment to guaranteeing the survival and care of all peoples.” In insisting that safety is necessarily a collective project—that the safety of some at the expense of others is not, in fact, safety at all—abolition insists that we take safety seriously, both on its own merits and because carceral and militarist solutions prevail when alternative structures of community care atrophy. It offers an orientation toward a transformational shift—one that addresses the root causes rather than a temporary and partial alleviation of the symptoms. “Real safety can never be purchased at the expense of human rights and human dignity,” the activist Kay Whitlock writes. Rather, it is found in the “interdependence [that] permits us to tear down the citadel of privilege, establishing in its place a life-giving foundation of love and healing justice.” Abolition is not only about dismantling the carceral state—dispensing with structures of domination and punishment authorized in the name of safety—but about developing infrastructures that allow people to live and flourish, addressing material needs like food, shelter, and healthcare, as well as higher-order needs like dignity and safety.

In its most capacious vision, “everyone for everyone” can be read as an abolitionist call—a way to think about safety grounded in solidarity and mutuality, raised in terrifying and precarious circumstances. It is at once a pragmatic demand that meets the moment in securing the release of captives—Israeli and Palestinian together—as well as a capacious call toward a political horizon that does not turn on capture. Everyone for everyone, all for all, reaches instinctively toward a kind of connection that is incommensurate with ethnostate: Only together will we know safety. It validates the long-suffering demands of Palestinian prisoners while insisting liberation is possible in tandem; in fact, it is the only way.

The images of returning captives offer us a glimpse of the rightness of restored communities. As Ohad Munder clings tight to his father, as Anwar Atta and his cousin Mourad Atta spot each other on the bus leaving Ofer prison before they are embraced by the crowd gathered in the streets of Ramallah, the justice of a world without incarceration asserts itself with a resonant clarity. There is no question these glimpses are partial and unequal—“We are still afraid to feel happy and at the same time, we do not have it in us to be happy due to what is happening in Gaza,” said Sawsan Bkeer, whose 24-year-old-daughter was among the Palestinian prisoners freed. As the ceasefire ends and Israel recommits to its “long war,” the call for “everyone for everyone” feels ever dimmer; yet, it is the only way out of the mess this carnage—of the last two months, of the last century—has left us. In the words of organizers Rachel Herzing and Mariame Kaba, “There will never be a day when the skies open up and the angels sing, ‘Abolition!’” But working to dismantle the prison state and ensure mutual safety offer us a glimmer of connection that, at this late hour, remains our best hope of tomorrow. Everyone for everyone.

Dan Berger is the author of several books on activism, Black Power, and the carceral state, including Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey. He curates the Washington Prison History Project.