Defense minister defends prisoner release as ‘strategic’ move

Ya’alon says freed inmates pose no threat, but right-wing Likud MK calls move ‘historic mistake’

Moshe Yaalon touring the south on Tuesday, October 29. (photo credit: Alon Basson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Moshe Yaalon touring the south on Tuesday, October 29. (photo credit: Alon Basson/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

The release of 26 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday night is a painful but necessary step taken with the long-term security of the state in mind, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday.

Ya’alon said the decision was made with a “heavy heart” but that it was done with “a long-term strategic view.”

The defense minister noted that the prisoners, who were jailed for attacks carried out before the 1993 Oslo Accords, have served most of their jail sentences.

Ya’alon added that the prisoners were unlikely to return to terror activities and that Israel would nonetheless monitor them to ensure that they don’t.

The release, the second in a series of four planned moves as part of US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, has raised ire in Israel’s right wing and among victims of terror, and set passions aflame in the cabinet, which approved the move Sunday night over the objections of the Knesset’s hawks.

Deputy Minister of Transportation Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) called the upcoming prisoner release a “historic and moral mistake,” joining the chorus of dissenters even from within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

“We should not negotiate with the Palestinians at all costs,” she said according to Israel Radio. “The face of the Palestinian Authority is not one of peace.”

The Israel Prisons Service published the names of the 26 prisoners slated to be released within the next two days late on Sunday night. All are convicted murderers. Six of the inmates have been imprisoned for just under 30 years. All but two were convicted for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. A government statement said that 21 of the inmates were from the West Bank and five were from the Gaza Strip.

Hotovely called for the adoption of the guidelines for releasing terrorists published in the Shamgar Committee report in 2012, which advised against the mass release of terrorists in prisoner swaps.

In a similar statement, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said Monday that his party was working to have the government “adopt the Shamgar recommendations that established a policy for the release of terrorists,” according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Bennett’s Jewish Home party is part of the ruling coalition that agreed to the four-stage prisoner release as a condition for rekindling peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, but he and members of his party have often criticized the move and even tried to block it with a ministerial committee proposal.

The Almagor Terror Victims’ Association submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon to stop the prisoners’ release, which is scheduled for midnight.

“The government did not bother to discuss the latest wave of terror in the West Bank over the past few weeks. It’s turning the other cheek even as we’re talking about the second phase of the release,” said Naftali Wertzberger, a lawyer working with the bereaved families who submitted the appeal. “Releasing terrorists only adds fuel to the terrorist fire. I’m optimistic and hopeful we’ll stop [the releases].”

Ahead of the first prisoners’ release in August, the organization’s appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court.

The release has drawn a great deal of political fire for Netanyahu and led to a spat between coalition partners Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua party), who is in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians.

In part to offset the political fallout from the release and calm the anger on the right, Netanyahu’s office announced that the government would, this week, approve tenders for the construction of 1,200 new apartment units across the Green Line.

On Monday, Netanyahu called the decision to release the prisoners one of the most agonizing of his career.

“The decision to release prisoners is one of the toughest decisions that I’ve taken as prime minister,” Netanyahu told a Likud-Beytenu faction meeting. “I am certain that all the prime ministers who made this decision before me agonized over it as well, due to the injustice of villains being released before they serve the full term of their sentences. My heart is with the bereaved families, and it pains me. This decision is a necessity, given the reality in which we live.”

As many as 3,000 demonstrators gathered Monday night outside the Ofer prison near Ramallah to protest the impending prisoner release, among them family members of the victims of terror attacks perpetrated by some of those slated for release on Tuesday. Demonstrators carried the victims’ pictures, and many of them shouted, “Jewish blood is not cheap.”

Haviv Rettig Gur, Gavriel Fiske and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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