Israel-Palestinian Prisoner Swap Stirs Strong Debate

Oct 17, 2011
Originally published on October 18, 2011 11:05 am

By a strong majority, Israelis support the decision to swap more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier. Still, it has provoked a painful debate, one that played out Monday, as it has several times before when Israel made similar lopsided trades in the past.

Families of terrorism victims petitioned the courts to block the exchange, and a crowd gathered outside the Israeli High Court on Monday to see whether it would allow the prisoner swap to go through. In the first stage, 477 Palestinians are to be freed Tuesday, along with the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive in the Gaza Strip for more than five years.

The exchange has the backing of nearly 4 out of 5 Israelis, according to a poll published Monday. That support comes despite the fact that some of the Palestinians being freed took part in some of the most notorious attacks against Israeli civilians.

A street musician played Monday at the scene of one such incident, at the intersection of King George and Jaffa streets in downtown Jerusalem, where a Sbarro pizzeria used to be.

In August 2001, a young Palestinian man walked in and set off his bomb, killing 15 people, including eight children. One of those scheduled to be released Tuesday is a woman, Ahlam Tamimi, who a decade ago was a 21-year-old who dropped the bomber off at the restaurant.

Father Of One Victim Opposes Swap

"It's extraordinary to me that people can call this a celebration, a happy day, on our side. This is absolutely beyond me. This is a terrible day," said Arnold Roth, who lost his 15-year-old daughter, Malki, in the Sbarro bombing. She was a classical musician and a volunteer who worked with disabled children, and it's difficult for Roth to accept that unlike Malki, Tamimi is about to get her life back.

"She should never be allowed out," Roth said. "She should never be allowed to make babies, make speeches, be feted and honored. She should spend her life behind bars."

Roth believes Tamimi and some of the other released prisoners will either carry out or inspire more attacks against Israelis. Efraim Inbar, an analyst with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, agrees.

"First of all, it's quite clear that the Palestinian terrorists have additional incentives to try to kidnap additional Israeli soldiers, because they get a huge price," Inbar said. "The second repercussion is there are clear statistics which show that 60 percent of the released terrorists from previous exchanges have returned to terror."

On several occasions in recent decades, Israel has made lopsided swaps to win the release of a small number of Israelis, or even a lone citizen or soldier. Every time it happens, Israelis go through a public debate on whether the trade-off is worth it. The Palestinians, meanwhile, see the kidnapping of an Israeli as the one sure way they can win the release of a large number of prisoners held by Israel.

Victim's Mother Supports Exchange

Outside the High Court, as Israelis argued against the prisoner releases, a woman with short salt-and-pepper hair offered a message of support for the swap. Robi Damelin's son David, 27, was killed by a Palestinian sniper at a West Bank checkpoint in 2002. She says she understands Roth's pain.

"On Thursday, they told me that the man who killed David was going to be freed," she said. "And that was really a test for me, you know, to see if I mean what I say."

Damelin helped form the "Parent's Circle," a forum for Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the conflict. Damelin says it's imperative that prisoner exchanges not be seen solely as propaganda victories or harbingers of more bloodshed.

"I'm more convinced now than ever that if we don't release prisoners there can be no end to this conflict," she said. "If you look at Ireland or you look at South Africa, some of the most violent murderers, who had blood on their hands exactly like many people here, are today the greatest peace workers that ever were."

Damelin has taken to heart something she heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed in her native South Africa after the end of apartheid.

"The definition of forgiveness is giving up your just right to revenge," she said.

It's a definition that has yet to catch on here, and some wonder if it ever will.

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