In Israel, a charged debate over prisoner releaseJERUSALEM — Relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks waged a charged debate Sunday over the planned release of militants this week in a deal to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years.
By: By Daniella Cheslow, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
JERUSALEM — Relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks waged a charged debate Sunday over the planned release of militants this week in a deal to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years.
Several families have filed court appeals against the deal, though it is not expected to halt the swap in which Hamas militants will free Sgt. Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. On Sunday, Israeli prison buses began moving some of the prisoners from one penal installation in southern Israel to another in preparation for their release.
Among the prisoners to be released on Tuesday are militants involved in deadly bombings and other attacks targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers.
The internal Israeli debate, combined with the hero's welcome awaiting the Palestinian prisoners upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reflect the sharply diverging narratives surrounding the swap. Israelis perceive the prisoners as cold-blooded terrorists, while in Palestinian society, prisoners are widely seen as resistance fighters.
The domestic debate in Israel largely focuses on whether Israel is paying too heavy a price.
In Israel, Ron Kehrmann said he opposes the swap, which would free three militants involved in the 2003 suicide bombing that killed his 17-year-old daughter, Tal, and 16 others aboard a bus in the city of Haifa. Kehrmann said the release could result in more Israeli deaths.
"Is the blood of the next captured soldier or citizen less red than the blood of Gilad Schalit?" he asked.
But other bereaved relatives believe the price is worth paying to free the captive soldier. The fate of Schalit, last seen in a 2009 video released by his captors, has preoccupied the nation since his capture in June 2006.
"To know your son is alive and not be able to hold him, this is the worst possible thing," said Yosefa Goldstein, whose daughter Sari, 21, died in a 2002 bus bombing.
Many argue that militants who killed Israelis could return to armed activity and that releasing so many prisoners, including many implicated in some of the deadliest attacks in recent memory, bolsters groups like Hamas at the expense of more moderate Palestinians. These considerations, this position argues, outweigh the life of one soldier.
But Israel's government decided, with the backing of the security services and what would appear to be a majority of Israelis, that no better deal could be achieved and that Schalit's return justified the price.
Among Palestinians, there is ongoing disagreement over whether the use of violence has been counterproductive in the quest for statehood. However, even those opposed to violence on tactical grounds argue that the prisoners sacrificed for a common cause and that Palestinians have the right to resist Israel's 44-year military occupation.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians were preparing a hero's welcome for the returning prisoners. In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — largely sidelined during the swap negotiations between Israel's government and Hamas, his political rival — was to hold a reception for released prisoners Tuesday, said an aide, Saeb Erekat.
Kadura Fares, a member of Abbas' Fatah movement and activist on behalf of prisoners, said it's unlikely the competing narratives can ever be reconciled.
"An Israeli army officer, from our point of view, he is a terrorist if he gives orders to kill people or bomb certain areas. For them (Israelis), he is a hero," just as Palestinians honor their own combatants, Fares said. "It's a debate that will never end."
He said bombers or gunmen should not be held personally responsible for their particular actions because they were swept up in the atmosphere that prevailed at the time. Recent polls indicate that support for attacks on Israelis has dropped since a rash of deadly bombings and shootings a decade ago, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising.
In Israel, the planned prisoner release led one man to carry out his own dramatic act of protest.
Shvuel Schijveschuurder, 27, lost his parents and three siblings in 2001 when a suicide bomber blew up a crowded pizza restaurant in Jerusalem, killing 15 people. A Palestinian woman who transported the bomber to the restaurant is among those slated for release.
On Friday, Tel Aviv police arrested him for vandalizing a memorial to the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in what seemed to be an attempt to draw attention to the family's opposition to the swap. Rabin's killer was an Israeli extremist who objected to his agreement to trade the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians for peace.
Last week, after the decision was announced, Schijveschuurder's 20-year-old sister, Lea, stood outside a Jerusalem protest tent where 300 supporters of the deal were celebrating. She held a sign that read, "My parents' blood shouts from the grave."
A Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Sunday that the swap deal for Schalit will encourage the Islamic group to capture more soldiers.
"The lessons we've learned by kidnapping soldiers leads us to continue the kidnappings," the Hamas leader said. "We still have 7,000 prisoners in (Israeli) jails, and they also need to be released."
In the Palestinian territories, families were waiting anxiously, especially for the return of some of the longest-serving prisoners.
In the West Bank village of Kobar, 47-year-old Hanan Barghouti said she was counting down the hours until the release of her brother 57-year-old Nael, who has been in prison since 1978 for the killing of an Israeli man.
"We are waiting for him to come out, get married and have a family like everyone else," she said.