Jerusalem — Gilad Shalit is home, but the domestic fallout from Israel’s lopsided prisoner exchange with Hamas may have only just begun.
Disgust over the release of so many Palestinians with “blood on their hands” has prompted demands for the release of Jewish security prisoners from Israeli jails, and calls for using the country’s death penalty against Arab terrorists.
It has even motivated dozens of high school students about to be inducted into the Israel Defense Forces to sign a letter asking the prime minister not to trade them for terrorists in the event they are captured.
The push for the release of Jewish prisoners who either planned or carried out violent attacks against Arabs is coming squarely from the political right and especially the settler community.
When Shmuel Meidad, founder of Henenu, an organization that, according to its website, assists Israeli prisoners “being persecuted” by “the government” and “courts,” learned that Israel was preparing to release more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners, he hastily compiled a list of 12 Jewish security prisoners serving time in Israeli jails.
Meidad, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Hebron, handed the list to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, just prior to the cabinet vote on the Shalit prisoner swap,
Since then, Yishai has been trying to convince key officials to either free the Jewish prisoners or greatly reduce their sentences, Meidad said.
“Twelve years ago [then] President Ezer Weizman freed Jewish prisoners, so there is a precedent,” Meidad told The Jewish Week a week after Shalit’s release. “If you release 1,000 Arab terrorists, it’s only fair that 10 or 11 people who fought against terrorism are also released.”
While he cannot say whether the Jewish prisoners — who include murderers — will be pardoned by President Shimon Peres, Meidad said he received “promises that some of the prisoners’ sentences will be reduced” by the end of the year, if not sooner.
Spokespersons from both the President’s Office and Ministry of Justice said that, to the best of their knowledge, no concrete steps have been taken on the prisoner release issue.
Arutz Sheva said the prisoners on Meidad’s list are believed to include Ami Popper, who gunned down seven Arabs waiting at a bus stop; and Shlomo Dvir and Ofer Gamliel, who jointly planned an unsuccessful bomb attack at a Palestinian girls’ school in east Jerusalem.
Yuli Edelstein, minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, told The Jewish Week that “in the present [post-Shalit] atmosphere, where we’ve seen real terrorists run free, I think it’s time to seriously consider reducing the sentences for certain Jewish prisoners.”
Edelstein emphasized that there are “different categories of prisoners” and noted that most of the prisoners Yishai is trying to release “don’t have blood on their hands.”
For Jewish prisoners to receive a pardon or even a shorter sentence, Edelstein said, the justice minister would have to be convinced that they will not return to violence.
Jewish security prisoners “are considered very dangerous prisoners” by the secret service and others,” Edelstein said.
In contrast to the right-wing tone of the prisoner-release demands, calls to sentence Palestinian terrorists to death appear to have broader public support.
Since the establishment of the state, Israel has carried out the death penalty only once: Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was put to death in May 1962.
Nearly 50 years after Eichmann’s sentencing in December 1961, capital punishment is still on the books in Israel, and terror victims and others who are appalled that Palestinian terrorists sentenced to life sentences are going free have begun calling for its imposition.
Observers agree that the murder of the Fogel family — two parents and three small children — earlier this year was a turning point. The Shalit prisoner exchange was another.
“I think that in some cases, and the Fogel one comes to mind, the death penalty may be justified,” Edelstein said. “We’re not saying every person who has planned an attack should be immediately put to death. At the same time, terrorists need to know they cannot kill as many Israelis as they want and eventually walk free.”
“The death penalty is long overdue,” the Jerusalem-based novelist Naomi Ragen said in an e-mail interview. “Facing the death penalty will be less appealing than being incarcerated in Israeli prisons from which they can hope to be spectacularly released by kidnapping blackmail.”
For Arnold Roth, whose daughter Malkie was murdered 10 years ago in the Sbarros pizzeria suicide bombing, the notion that Israel would again impose the death penalty was once unimaginable.
“I’ve always been opposed to the death penalty on moral and principled grounds,” said Roth, who along with his wife, Frimet, circulated a petition to prevent Ahlam Tamimi, who transported the 22-pound bomb and bomber to Jerusalem, from being released in exchange for Shalit.
In interviews, Tamimi has shown no remorse and said she would do it all again.
Roth, a soft-spoken man with a thick Australian accent, said “the sharpness of the experience — the feeling is one of devastation,” has caused him to consider the death penalty “on a purely utilitarian level.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” Roth admitted.
Lila Margalit, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, believes the Israeli public has long opposed the death penalty “because there is an understanding that it’s not the type of punishment we as a society want to adopt.
“When we deliberately kill a person convicted of a crime, no matter how heinous, it undermines our commitment to the principle of the sanctity of human life.”
Additionally, Margalit said, Israelis realize that “no system of justice is infallible” and therefore do not want to risk killing an innocent person.
On Tuesday, the same day Ynet News reported that Saudi cleric Dr. Awad al-Qarni was offering $100,000 to anyone who kidnaps an Israeli soldier, Yediot Achronot carried a story about dozens of religious and secular teens who don’t want to be exchanged for hundreds of prisoners.
“I’d prefer to stay in prison rather than be traded for terrorists,” said David Lotan from Rishon Lezion.
Lotan, who like the other teens expects to be drafted soon, said, “My life isn’t more important than the life of the people who could be killed by the terrorists being released.”