In an effort to prop up a faltering Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, the United States was seen as pressuring Israel this week to release more Palestinian prisoners and dismantle more unauthorized outposts. But there is widespread opposition to such moves by many Israelis.
“We should not be doing things without getting something from the other side,” said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a former member of the Knesset from the Meimad Party. “If the Palestinians were to destroy the infrastructure of the terror groups, then maybe we could consider” the American requests.
He said the Israeli Cabinet’s decision Sunday to release about 350 of the estimated 6,000 prisoners Israel holds would not be a problem. Avi Dichter, the head of Israel’s internal security, the Shin Bet, was quoted as saying that the 350 consisted of those never charged with a crime, those convicted of crimes unrelated to the intifada and those who are not members of terrorist organizations. No members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, two organizations committed to Israel’s destruction, are on the list.
Rabbi Gilad said Abbas is under attack from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to win the release of their prisoners, telling him that since they agreed June 29 to his request for a cease-fire, they want this in return.
Abbas also came under fire from senior members of Fatah who are aligned with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. They complained during a heated meeting Monday night that Abbas had failed to win any significant concessions from Israel, particularly regarding the release of prisoners.
Israeli officials said the internationally sponsored road map to peace does not call on them to release Palestinian prisoners, and that any release would be made as a gesture of goodwill. The cabinet conditioned further prisoner releases on Palestinian compliance with the road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Members of the Terror Victims Association, relatives of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks, spoke out against such releases during a visit to New York this week.
“We’re against releasing them,” said Sheila Rosenak-Shorshan, director of social programs for the Terror Victims Association (www.terrorvictims.com), formed in 1986 to protest a planned release of Palestinian terrorists.
“In practice, there is no difference between someone who ‘has blood on his hands’ — who was directly responsible for taking a life in a terrorist attack — and someone who sent someone to do it,” she added. Her husband, Doron, a farmer, was killed 11 years ago near Gaza by three Hamas terrorists, one of whom fled to Egypt and subsequently returned to Gaza. The other two are serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons.
Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid this week rejected a Palestinian request for a broader prisoner release, citing Hamas statements that it would resume violence after the cease-fire ends.
Amid talk of an Israeli prisoner release, the Jerusalem Post wrote in an editorial that the early release of convicted terrorists would be a “slap in the face of justice and the rule of law.”
“Even in a normal war in which prisoner releases are eventually to be expected, neither side suggests releasing them during a cease-fire,” the paper said. “Hamas and the other terrorists organization, even in their cease-fire declaration, explicitly reject the existence of and peace with the ‘Zionist enemy.’ Why should Israel consider releasing people who do not even deny that they plan to attack us again?”
Calev Ben-David, managing editor of the Post, told the Jewish Week by phone that the prisoner release issue is a difficult one for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Noting that “everyone knows someone who died in a terrorist attack,” Ben-David added: “God forbid that we go into stage two of the [current] intifada and some of these same people perform [new] terrorist attacks.”
Dr. Elaine Hoter, who joined Rosenak-Shorshan on her tour here, observed: “It’s not that [the terrorists] are rehabilitated and are [now] going to be nice people” after their release.
Rosenak-Shorshan pointed out that after 415 Palestinian terrorists were released in a blanket amnesty in 1993 and another 1,100 between 1995 and 1997, many returned to terrorist activities.
“It’s not moral” to release terrorists, she added.
But Hisham Abdel Razik, the Palestinian Authority official in charge of prisoner affairs, said the Palestinians might back out of the cease-fire if Israel failed to release prisoners belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed a 65-year-old woman in her home near Netanya Monday, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad promised additional attacks unless their prisoners are released.
“The attack was aimed for the shul across the street,” said Mordechai Kedar, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. “The shul and the house are the same number of buildings from the fence [of the Moshav the terrorist entered]. But instead of going to the left and the shul, he mistakenly went to the right, entered the back door of the house and blew himself up, killing the lady.”
“If he had entered the shul and killed 20 people, it would have killed the cease-fire,” he said.
Kedar said he believes Abbas’ “days are numbered” anyway because he does not appear to have succeeded in trying to satisfy the demands of Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Fatah and Arafat.
“Israel is demanding that he dismantle Hamas and Islamic Jihad and he is not willing to do that,” said Kedar of Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen. “And now there are published reports about Arafat and Mazen fighting over who is in charge of broadcasts of the Palestinian Authority. Mazen says one thing and the broadcasts say another.”
“Mazen is not a leader, he’s a technocrat,” Kedar observed. “He knows what to do behind a desk, not in the street.”
Although Abbas resigned Monday from the Central Committee of the Fatah movement, his resignation has not been accepted. He has also threatened to resign as prime minister. Both moves were seen by observers as attempts to shore up his standing with the Palestinian leadership, which knows it will receive a reported $20 million from the Bush administration only if Abbas remains in power.
Gerald Steinberg, another political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that “resignation is built into the Palestinian process to gain support internally and externally. But what is painful to watch is that the U.S. seems to be buying into this Palestinian strategy, putting pressure on Sharon to go beyond what was agreed to in his cabinet.”
Steinberg said the dispute over prisoner releases is the “first substantive crisis” since the cease-fire but that it won’t be the last.
“And what it does is take the focus off of the disarming of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” he said.
Asked if he believed it was just a matter of time before the cease-fire collapsed, Steinberg cited the suicide bombing on Monday and the shooting death Wednesday of the brother of a wanted Palestinian by Israeli undercover soldiers in the West Bank. He was killed during a raid to arrest his brother, a commander of the Fatah Tanzim military group who was said to be on the verge of orchestrating a terrorist attack in Israel.
“So they are still attacking us and we are responding,” said Steinberg. “Clearly there is an atmosphere of extreme skepticism, but there is no other game in town except for the fence that is continuing to be built and at an accelerated pace.”
But Hirsh Goodman, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he does not interpret American moves as pressure on Israel but rather as an attempt to keep both sides “moving at a measured pace” along the path of the road map.
He said there has already been Palestinian action in reducing incitement in the Palestinian media.
“There has been a significant drop in incitement — a very significant drop,” he said. “It has cleared up remarkably.”
There have also been meetings between the Palestinian prime ministers and justice ministers and he said that “generally speaking both sides are moving as best they can in a direction that is overall cautiously optimistic.”
He noted also that the Palestinians had stopped two suicide bombers from carrying out their plans.
“We are moving in a cautiously positive direction for the first time in 2 1/2 years,” Goodman said.
But Rosenak-Shorshan said that although she agrees that “everyone needs to give peace a chance, we already gave [the Palestinians] a chance. We gave them arms. We gave them a governing body. How many chances do you give?”