“Releasing Terrorists Has Nothing to Do with Peace”
Ian Feinberg came to Israel from South Africa when he was 18 and worked tirelessly for the advancement of the Palestinian people • In 1993 he was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza • This week, one of his killers was freed as a gesture.
Gillian Feinberg (Photo credit: Liron Almog)
Like every mother, Gillian Feinberg has that unscientific but accurate gut feeling when it comes to her children.
“There are those moments that are etched in your memory that you recall after a terrible tragedy happens,” she says, describing what she went through on April 4, 1993, the terrible day that her son, attorney Ian Feinberg, was killed.
“I remember that I asked him not to go into the Gaza Strip on the day of the closure, but he said, ‘Mother, don’t worry. They’re my friends. They know me. I’ll be fine.’ I remember my stomach was churning with worry—I really remember that physical feeling—and that was the day they murdered him.”
Over the past two weeks, Gillian and the other members of her family have been revisiting that horrible day in the office building in Gaza where Ian was murdered. Two busy weeks of protests, media interviews and attending hearings at the High Court of Justice on the petition submitted by the Almagor Terror Victims Association against the release of the Palestinian prisoners went by. But as everyone knows, ultimately the petition was rejected and the murderers, including Ian’s killers, were released last Tuesday night. Another one of his killers had already been released in the 2011 prisoner exchange in which Gilad Schalit was released.
Ian Feinberg’s story is unique. He was not an unfortunate bystander or anonymous victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Feinberg devoted his life to helping the Palestinians improve their economic standing. Many of his colleagues saw him as one of their own, and after he was murdered, the Palestinian street, too, was shocked and stunned.
Feinberg’s family, who marked the 20th anniversary of their eldest son’s murder four months ago, never imagined that they would have to deal with the ghosts of the past yet again. For 20 years, his family has been trying to pick up the pieces and move on, and in a stroke of one government decision, the wound has been ripped open once again. In all honesty, it never healed.
The family members are exhausted from two weeks of frustrating battles with the High Court to stop the wretched decision to free the man who murdered their son. Only Gillian, a petite woman with curly hair, agreed to be interviewed; the rest were too tired. Her enormous strength and inner resources shine through her gentle demeanor and calm tone. She believes that “it’s important that Ian be remembered, that people know everything he did for the people who murdered him.”
“We learned that Ian’s murderer was to be released from the media,” she says. “It was also through the media that we learned that he had been murdered. My second eldest son was listening to the radio on the bus, on his way home, and heard that a young Jewish attorney had been murdered in Gaza. He ran home and asked us if we knew where Ian was. We said, ‘Sure. Ian’s at work.’
“I remember that we had just sat down to dinner that evening. He told us what he had heard, and we started making telephone calls. Ian didn’t answer, of course. His wife didn’t know where he was, and for two hours we were beside ourselves. Around 8 p.m., I looked through the kitchen window and saw two people coming up the street, searching for an address. I realized right away that they were looking for us, and so they were.”
Behind Their Backs
Feinberg, who was murdered shortly before his 30th birthday, was survived by his wife and three small children.
“I really wanted to set the date for his birthday celebration with the whole family, but he was so busy with his project in Gaza that he couldn’t commit,” his mother says. “He promised me that the moment he was done, we’d have a proper celebration. He was murdered a few days before the project was completed.”
Feinberg’s family moved to Israel from South Africa out of Zionist motives when Ian was 18. Gillian keeps the trembling out of her voice and the tears from her eyes throughout the entire interview, but when I ask her to tell me about her son, she can no longer keep from weeping.
“Ian was my eldest son. He was a tall and strong young man, but gentle and good. He had a black belt in karate, he was a smart kid, a real genius, but very modest and quiet. He always had a wonderful smile.
“He was a real pursuer of justice. That was why he studied law—to help the weak, the underdog, those who couldn’t look after themselves. Because of that, he was drawn to working with the Palestinians in Gaza. That provided him with the challenge that he needed. When he studied law at Bar-Ilan University, the apartment he rented with his roommate was broken into and items were stolen. Ian found the culprits and asked them nicely to return the stolen items. Within an hour, everything was returned. That was how Ian was. Everyone loved him.”
His connection with the Palestinians began when he served as an attorney for the IDF Military Advocate General inside Gaza. After completing his army service, the law office where he worked accepted a project from the European Union whose purpose was to establish a flour mill in Gaza. Naturally, Ian was assigned to the project.
“He knew everybody there,” says Gillian. “He had a really good relationship with the Palestinians with whom he worked. He invited all his Arab friends to his eldest son’s circumcision ceremony, and they all came. They had a whole table during the celebration. He fit well into working with the European Union because the EU workers didn’t know the local people, and they needed someone who knew the field well. Ian was a perfect fit because of his abilities and his good nature.”
“He had immunity from the European Union, a certificate given to lawyers, social workers and all kinds of people who worked with the Palestinians for the EU. Where was that immunity when he was murdered?”
On the day of the murder, Feinberg was in the EU offices in Gaza for a business meetings. At midday, he and his colleagues went to lunch, and afterward, Ian went back to the office on his own. The murder had been planned in advance, and the murderer was waiting for him on the roof of the building. One of the workers there, whom Ian knew well, collaborated with them, notifying the murderer that Ian had returned and was in his office. Feinberg was attacked a short time later and died of several stab wounds to the neck.
“I didn’t want to know anything then,” Gillian says. “I didn’t attend the murderers’ trial. I didn’t want to know the details. My daughter, Gila [Molcho, who worked intensively to stop the government decision to release her brother’s killer], was involved, and she read the report about the murder, but I didn’t want to see it. It was very hard for us after the murder. I tried to keep the family from falling apart, help us pull ourselves together and go on. I didn’t care what happened to the murderers. I knew they would be going to prison and that was it. I never imagined in my worst nightmares that they would be freed.”
The family found out only recently, at the High Court hearings, that the first killer had been released as part of the deal that freed Gilad Schalit.
“A BBC correspondent approached Gila and told her about it. We hadn’t known at all,” Gillian says. “But that’s all right. If he was released to bring another person home, then it was for a good purpose. A person returned from captivity. But this is something entirely different. The terrorist [Abdel-Aal Sa’id] was released in exchange for nothing, as far as I’m concerned. He was released for no good reason. To start some diplomatic procedure? What has that got to do with it? How exactly will that help?”
Are you angry with the state about the release?
“As far as I’m concerned, the prime minister should have spoken about it with the public. He should have explained the significance of the act to the people of Israel, said that it was difficult, that he was sorry, but it had to be done. It’s the least he could do, in my opinion. It would have eased our pain a little. But they way it was done simply hurts. I felt they had gone behind my back, as if they were hiding something.
“It’s hard for me to see their celebrations. It’s hard for me to see them going back home as though nothing had happened. It’s hard for me to hear the terminology the foreign media networks are using as they cover the release, calling them ‘political prisoners’ or ‘freedom fighters.’ These are not freedom fighters. These are terrorists. These are murderers.”
Ian Feinberg was a good person who believed that people were good at heart and trusted them—and that, as his mother believes, was what led to his death.
“That fact is the hardest one for us,” she says. “The fact that one of his friends betrayed him when all he wanted to do was help them, give them a leg up. Ian believed that if the Palestinians developed a good, strong economic infrastructure, they would be able to move forward and help themselves. He really thought that if we helped them develop their economy, they would live with us in peace. But that didn’t happen.
“They missed a golden opportunity to advance themselves. If he hadn’t been murdered, maybe now they’d be able to have big enterprises and good industry. After his murder, the European Union stopped the project. They were shocked that such a thing could happen. I remember that the EU’s official response was reported in the foreign media. They said that the murder of Ian Feinberg was something that should never have happened.”
Ever since the names of the Palestinian prisoners to be released from jail was publicized, and efforts to prevent the release began, the Feinberg family has undergone an emotional whirlwind that they did not think they would ever experience.
“We feel like we are in a surreal situation, as if this isn’t really happening,” says Gillian. “We planned to voice our objections in court. We were 12 people in all, but the media waited for us and suddenly it became something very big. We didn’t plan on talking, but we did so because it was important for us to raise awareness of the issue, and it was important for us to mention Ian. All our sadness and grief have been opened anew.”
Do you believe that the prisoner release will help move the peace process forward?
“Not at all. One thing has nothing to do with the other. It’s very foolish to link the release of murderers with the peace process. [Former prime ministers Yitzhak] Rabin and [Menachem] Begin promised that they would not release murderers, and look, 20 years later, the exact opposite is happening. Doesn’t the government want people to have good lives here? Doesn’t it want people like me, who came here out of Zionism and sacrificed the dearest thing they had, to live here in peace and quiet? What’s the connection between the peace process and this ‘gesture’ of releasing prisoners? How does that help us? If there’s peace, and I hope there will be one of these days, that will have nothing to do with these terrorists who were released now. It simply makes no sense.”
Do you sometimes regret having moved to Israel?
“No. We moved here for Zionist reasons and we’ve had a good life here for many years. There are so many questions of ‘what would have happened if …’—if Ian hadn’t worked there, if we hadn’t moved here at all. But there’s no sense in thinking about those things. There are people who leave Israel because they don’t want something to happen to them here. So they move to the United States or Canada, and something terrible happens to them there, of all places. It seems that was his fate, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.
“All I wanted was to rebuild our lives here, with the pain. For 20 years I thought we were succeeding, and then something like this happens. Even as we struggled over the past two weeks, I never really thought it would be possible to persuade the government not to release the terrorists. I didn’t think it would help, but I felt it was important to tell Ian’s story, as if he were alive now. I’m sure he’d be proud of us now, and that’s what gives us comfort. After the murder, we didn’t create a monument for him, so maybe that is our way to commemorate him and tell everybody what a wonderful human being he was.”