A prisoner release beset by extremists on both sides

The Jewish Home party is hypocritically opposed to a move that Hamas also fears

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.

Freed Palestinian prisoner Ateya Abu Moussa, who was held by Israel for 20 years, is greeted by his relatives upon arrival at his family's house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, early on August 14, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Freed Palestinian prisoner Ateya Abu Moussa, who was held by Israel for 20 years, is greeted by his relatives upon arrival at his family's house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, early on August 14, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

After long weeks of quiet between Gaza and Israel, today was the day that Grad missiles were fired at Ashkelon, just a few hours after the Netanyahu government approved the release of another 26 prisoners. One can already hear Jewish Home MK Orit Strock crowing that this is proof that releasing prisoners fans the flames of terror.

The truth is there isn’t necessarily a connection between the two. But if there is one, it seems the missile launchers weren’t inspired by the release of the prisoners but rather the opposite: They want to damage what is perceived among the Palestinian public as another achievement for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who has succeeded once again in getting Israel to release prisoners by just negotiating — not through kidnappings, not through murders, not with a second Gilad Shalit or a prisoner swap.

This formula, that the release of prisoners within the framework of negotiations strengthens Abbas’s position, is known to the Israeli government — even to the ministers of the right-wing Jewish Home, which has cried foul over the release.

In fact, all the noise heard from the Jewish Home in the last months is nothing but media spin.

On the eve of the start of negotiations between Israel and the PA, Jewish Home figures made it clear to members of the press as well as the prime minister that they would agree to stay in the coalition if Netanyahu releases veteran Palestinian prisoners but they will leave if he moves to freeze settlement construction.

Party leader Naftali Bennett and his colleagues are crying foul against a process in which they are knowing partners. If they don’t like it they could simply get up and leave the government, but they don’t.

In any case, the release of veteran prisoners doesn’t encourage terror. Just the opposite: it encourages negotiations. True, these prisoners are murderers, but they carried out their attacks before the Oslo Accords and are now returning to their homes not through violence or terror but within the framework of diplomatic talks.

Their release — and this is important for Jewish Home — attests to the fact that something in the negotiations continues to move forward. Despite the waves of pessimism and the endless eulogies for the talks, some progress has been registered; otherwise, the releases would not happen.

Meetings between the negotiation teams are held all the time, some below the media radar, and neither side is in a hurry to scupper the talks. That is troubling Hamas, and it apparently troubles many in Israel, including in Jewish Home.

Israelis have little reason to worry about the prisoners being released. The 104 prisoners under discussion — going free in four phases — don’t present any real danger. Some have sat in prison for 30 years; these are elderly people, some of them ill, who are not likely to return to active terrorism.

By contrast, men far more dangerous than they were released within the framework of PoW exchange deals, and those deals really did encourage terror. When 1,027 terrorists, including hundreds of Hamas members, were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit in 2011, it was something of a lifeline for an organization that was going through one of its most difficult times. Today, more than a few of those set free in that deal, who were exiled abroad or to Gaza, are deeply involved in Hamas efforts to carry out attacks from the West Bank.

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