‘Let the prisoners die in jail, just as my brother lies dead on Mt. Herzl’

Many of Israel’s bereaved families find the possible imminent release of 82 pre-Oslo terrorists unconscionable

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An Israeli prison guard escorts Palestinian prisoners before their release from the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 15, 2008 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
An Israeli prison guard escorts Palestinian prisoners before their release from the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 15, 2008 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Rachel Weiss and her three small children were on their way to a family affair in Tiberias on October 30, 1988. As the bus the family was riding passed the northern outskirts of Jericho, it was ambushed and set ablaze with three Molotov cocktails. Rachel (26) and her three boys Netanel (3), Rephael (2) and Efraim (9 months) were killed in the attack, as was IDF soldier David Delarosa who attempted to rescue the family.

Jomaa Adam, the terrorist who perpetrated the attack, is reportedly among the 82 Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel before the signing of 1993 Oslo Peace Accords who will released if newly announced peace talks make headway.

The Israeli cabinet will vote on the prisoner release as early as next Sunday, Israeli media reported, ahead of a scheduled first round of talks between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Washington. Israel has reportedly refused to release an additional 21 pre-Oslo prisoners, either because they are Israeli citizens or for other security reasons.

Israeli officials have indicated the prisoners will be freed in phases, beginning 4-6 weeks into the negotiations, and continue doing at 6-8 week intervals depending on the progress of talks. Under Israeli law, the prisoners’ names will be published 48 hours before their release to allow families of their victims to appeal the decision with the Supreme Court.

Adam is by no means the only still-jailed pre-Oslo terrorist whose attack is etched in Israeli collective memory. Khaled Al-Azraq laid a bomb in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market in May 1990, killing one man and injuring nine. He tried to do the same in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market. Mahmoud Muammar and Ibrahim Salah stabbed to death Hebrew University Professor Menachem Stern on his daily walk to the National Library in June 1989.

“It’s all a ploy, there will never be peace with them,” the brother of yeshiva student Erez Shmuel, who was stabbed to death in Hebron by three Palestinians in May 1993, told The Times of Israel, trying to explain the futility of the move. “I would leave the prisoners to die in jail, just as my brother lies dead [in the military cemetery] on Mount Herzl.”

“This issue kills us, but we’re a quiet family that doesn’t like to make noise,” he added, requesting that his name not be published.

An exhaustive list of prisoners published by Almagor, an Israeli organization representing the families of terror victims, details attacks against hiking couples, Jewish employers, suspected Palestinian collaborators and against IDF soldiers; some involving kidnapping with the intent of prisoner exchange, others involving the mutilation of the victims’ bodies.

“Every time [deals like this are proposed] the hearts of the families break anew,” said Almagor spokesman Avi Bromberg in an interview with Army Radio July 14. “By releasing them, the prime minister and his cabinet harm our judicial system, Israeli society, and the motivation of new IDF recruits.”

For Palestinians, the prisoner issue could hardly be higher on the agenda. Prisoners are regularly glorified in public ceremonies and on Palestinian television; a Palestinian ministry pays their families monthly stipends; and demonstrations calling for their release take place periodically throughout the West Bank.

Out of roughly 5,000 Palestinians currently imprisoned in Israeli jails, nearly half are serving time for violent acts against Israelis. Five hundred and fifty are serving life sentences, Israel’s Prison Service told journalists in April.

Many Palestinians identify with the prisoners from personal experience. Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad announced last December that 800,000 Palestinians, encompassing 40% of its males, have been arrested at least once since Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, applying martial law to its Palestinian residents.

Kadoura Fares, a Fatah official and head of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, a nongovernmental organization, told The Times of Israel in April that the release of pre-Oslo prisoners would be a condition the Palestinian leadership could hardly forego. He added that Palestinian society generally makes no distinction between prisoners who killed Israeli civilians and those who killed soldiers.

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