Tension among Israelis after Release of 26 Palestinian Prisoners
Release of prisoners on demand from Palestinian leaders as precondition for peace talks sparks conflict in Israeli cabinet
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Israel released 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners in the early hours of Wednesday, triggering street parties in the West Bank and Gaza that continued through the night accompanied by music, fireworks, automatic gunfire, and outrage from Israelis over the release of terrorists.
The prisoners released on Wednesday were the second group in a total of 104 prisoners who were convicted of killing Israelis before the signing of the Oslo peace accords and who have been jailed for more than 20 years. Their release was demanded by Palestinian leaders as a precondition to the peace talks being conducted under the auspices of the US.
The move created tensions in the Israeli cabinet and ignited strong emotions in the Jewish state. In an attempt to calm the storm of opposition from his rightwing supporters, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, announced more than 1,000 new housing units and other projects in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.
In Palestine, news of further settlement construction could not dampen the celebratory mood as 21 of the freed prisoners were greeted by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and senior officials at an official celebration in the presidential compound in Ramallah. The men laid a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat before being presented to a 3,000-strong crowd of family, friends and supporters who had waited until 1am for the emotional reunion. In Gaza, five additional prisoners were greeted with similar celebrations as they returned to their homes.
“We welcome our brothers, the heroes, coming from behind the bars to a world of freedom and liberty,” Abbas told the crowd in Ramallah, enjoying a rare moment of achievement in his logjammed dealings with Israel. “Today our happiness is great, but of course it will not be complete until every single last prisoner has been liberated.”
“I promise you now there will be no agreement if there is one prisoner remaining,” he vowed.
In nearby El Bireh, hundreds greeted the triumphant homecoming of Israr Samarin and Musa Kar’an, who in 1991 ambushed Tzvi Klein, an off-duty soldier driving to his home in a nearby settlement, and shot him in the head. With loud music blaring from the speakers and supporters firing automatic weapons into the air, the pair mounted a stage constructed in the street to express their happiness.
“Thank God for having achieved this freedom for us,” Samarin said. “My feelings now in front of my family and all these neighbours have erased all the pain I experienced in prison.”
“We as a people love peace, but it must be a peace that protects our honour, that restores our rights and liberates our land, and will uproot all the settlements that strangle our existence and our very selves on this land of Palestine,” he said.
For Palestinians the prisoners have become symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation, but many Israelis were shocked by the insistence on the release of prisoners they consider to be cold-blooded killers. Victims’ relatives waged a legal battle up to the last minute to stop the release, arguing that it would encourage more violence.
More than 3,000 Israelis staged a demonstration on Monday night, forming a human chain around Ofer prison where the prisoners were being held. A smaller group returned just before the deadline on Tuesday.
Meir Indor, leader of the Almagor association of victims of terrorism, said such moves “bring more casualties to the area and more violence. There are other terrorists, young ones, who see those terrorists going out and are being glorified by the Palestinian authority, and they say, well, we can do the same, we will kill Jews and we will be released very soon. So we are fighting for justice for our loved ones, but we are fighting for the other people so they will not be killed.”
On Sunday, the economy minister Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party launched an attack on his cabinet colleague Tzipi Livni, who is leading the peace talks.
“The release of prisoners in exchange for the dubious right of Tzipi Livni to meet with Saeb Erekat is most terrible. With all due respect, halting the release of murderers is even more important than justifying Livni’s being in the government,” the party said in a statement, which was furiously denounced by Livni’s supporters as an incitement to violence on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the assassination of the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Bennett stood by the statement and his party’s proposed legislation to block further prisoner releases.
“We are witnessing a tremendous offensive against us,” Bennet said. “The goal is to domesticate us, to force us into the herd mentality. What can we do? We have a different view. Those who support a Palestinian state get support; if you’re against, you are called the extreme right, you’re called a fascist.
But we will not remain silent. We have clear positions and this assault won’t silence us.”
Gila Molcho, whose brother Ian’s three killers have each been freed in the last three exchanges, said she was reliving the “terrible experience” of the day in 1993 when he was hacked to death while working for a European aid organisation in Gaza.
“My brother was a humanitarian. He liked to help people. He was working in the Gaza Strip to help create jobs for the Palestinians,” she said. “We are not a gesture.”
Expressing Israel’s moderate voice, Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace activist who helped negotiate the exchange of more than 1,000 prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011, said Israel had no choice: “These prisoner releases leave a bad taste in the mouth, but Israel had agreed to release these prisoners by 1999.”