Why Netanyahu is right on the prisoners

Why Netanyahu is right on the prisoners

The wrenching release of pre-Oslo terror convicts might just revive debate in the West Bank on peace, in an Arab world where everything has changed

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Relatives of Palestinians prisoners take part in a protest calling for their release, in Ramallah in April (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Relatives of Palestinians prisoners take part in a protest calling for their release, in Ramallah in April (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The Israel government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, made a courageous move on Sunday when it decided to release 104 veteran prisoners, some of whom were convicted of murdering Israelis, and all of whom had been arrested prior to the Oslo Accords of 1993.

The decision was condemned, as expected, by some on the right, who insist that terrorists who killed or injured Israelis should not be released. In theory, they may have a point. But it’s not the first time Israel has released such prisoners, and unfortunately in the past this has been done within the framework of negotiations to release kidnapped soldiers, or for the return of soldiers’ bodies. It is possible that the time has come to convey a different message to the Palestinians — that prisoners “with blood on their hands” will not be released in return for soldiers who have been abducted but, rather, as part of negotiations for a political settlement.

Who exactly are we talking about here? These are murderers, terror activists. The problem is that they were all sent into action by Palestinian leaders who have since become partners with the State of Israel in endless peace talks, and in a series of political and economic agreements. In many ways, keeping these people in jail while Israel is negotiating with those who sent them to carry out terrorist attacks perpetuates a distortion of justice. These terrorists, despite the terrible acts in which they played a central part, should have been released to their homes many years ago — from the moment that Israel’s governments decided to forgive their handlers.

During the many years in which they sat in jail, these prisoners have turned into symbols for the Palestinian public. Symbols of injustice, of Israeli occupation, and especially of the conception that “the Jews only understand force.”

This is especially borne out by Israel’s agreement, as part of negotiations with Hamas, to free prisoners who murdered and injured Israelis, or in surrender to Hezbollah’s demands (note the case of Samir Kuntar, for example).

Now, Netanyahu’s surprise move grants the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, an advantage over Hamas, and enables him to declare to his public: “I told you so.” In some ways it also gives him the opportunity to arouse Palestinian public opinion, which has become very apathetic of late. As things stand, the pessimism and apathy now common among Israelis with regard to the Palestinians is echoed in the West Bank, where it seems no one cares about peace talks with Israel.

Pessimism has overtaken all hope. But the release of the 104 prisoners could awaken public debate among Palestinians regarding the possibility of reaching political agreement with Israel.

What about the security risks? In contrast with the 2011 deal for Hamas-kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, where it was clear that many of those released would return to terror activities in the West Bank, or would attempt to direct terror activities from Gaza or from abroad, here this is less likely to happen. The chance that these people will go back to terrorist activities is low, something corroborated by the Israeli defense establishment.

Several years ago, I met one of these prisoners while visiting the Shikma prison in Ashkelon. His name is Ahmed Awad Kamil. Until 1993, he was the bane of the Israeli defense establishment, no less. His name became notorious among Shin Bet coordinators and those staffing the IDF’s elite units. He headed the Kabatia Black Panther gang, one of the most dangerous terrorist cells, and was arrested in a complex operation carried out by one of those elite units. When I met him in prison, I think it was in 2007, there wasn’t much left of the “legendary Kamil.” He was older, suffered from bodily tremors and stuttered somewhat.

Six years have passed since then, and one can only assume that Kamil, along with his friends in the prisons, have not gotten any younger. These are not the people who constitute a danger to Israel’s security. We already released the dangerous ones, as part of the Shalit deal.

Everything we ever knew about the Middle East has long been thrown onto the trash heap of history, and everything new that we learned in recent years has again become irrelevant.

But why release these prisoners, ask the critics? For negotiations that will inevitably go nowhere? Since previous efforts at negotiation, they argue, nothing has changed.

Actually, everything has changed. Everything we ever knew about the Middle East has long been thrown onto the trash heap of history, and everything new that we learned in recent years has again become irrelevant.

There has been a sea change. In the Arab world, all of a sudden there is public opinion, public pressure and elections, together with Al Qaeda-style extremists on Israel’s southern and northern borders. It would be foolish on the part of Israel’s decision makers to see only the negative events in our area, without recognizing the various opportunities: Who ever thought, two and a half years ago, that the secular populations of Egypt and Tunisia would come out against the Islamists in such violent force? Who could have foreseen the rift in the Sunni camp between the United Emirates-Saudi Arabia-new Egypt camp and the Qatar-Turkey-old Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) camp, against a background of battles and confrontations which are splitting the Middle East and shaping it anew in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

And within all this turmoil, there is one small island of relative Arab stability in the area: the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. No mass demonstrations or revolutions, hardly any opposition, at a time when Hamas is experiencing its worst political/economic/military situation in years. True, Abbas does not rule in Gaza. There is the occasional demonstration against him. But even the Palestinian Tamarod (Rebel) movement, which tried to imitate Egypt’s 30th of July revolution, did not manage to bring out more than a few dozen people in the streets. The Palestinian defense establishment continues to act vigorously against terror infrastructures put in place by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and is fully credited for its actions by the Israel defense establishment.

Netanyahu is the only one who continues to insist that the Palestinian security efforts are a drop in the ocean compared to Israel’s efforts (something that is just factually incorrect). Netanyahu even often refers to the Palestinians as “Arabs,” and it seems that the faith he has in Abbas is similar to his faith in Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett or in Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes.

Perhaps just this once, it’s worthwhile for Netanyahu to continue with the process he began Sunday in the decision to release the prisoners, and adopt John Lennon’s recommendation to give peace a chance.

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