Prepare for round three. Just one month after 398 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has agreed to release 20 more, according to accounts of last week's rendezvous with Mahmoud Abbas. This may not be a significant number, but as the first release of prisoners with "blood on their hands" it would set a radically new precedent.
When the 398 were let loose in May, and before them a further 500 in February, the Israeli authorities assured their public that none had been convicted of acts of murder. This time we are being placated with a different tranquiliser: all the murderers, it is said, are "frail, veteran prisoners".
The impending release, like those before it, is being sold as an "unavoidable" concession. But is it? No one even seems to be asking.
I am a bereaved mother. My daughter, 15-years-old, was murdered in the Sbarro restaurant bombing in August 2001, along with 14 other innocent civilians. While her murderer suicided in the attack, his female accomplice, a Jordanian-born media student at a West Bank university, is currently serving a 320-year jail sentence in Israel. Twenty of those years are for the life of my daughter. Four years after the massacre, my pain is as fresh as the day it happened so I do not expect 20 years to dull it in the least. I fairly choke when I hear the words: "We have no choice." And I ask: "Why in the world not?"
Israel's prisoner release policy demands much closer scrutiny than it is getting.
A former head of the prison service recently wrote in optimistic terms about this issue. In a newspaper article, Lieutenant-General (Ret.) Orit Adato compared our conflict with that of Britain and Northern Ireland. She conceded, "Some of the prisoners freed in the past returned to the path of terrorism, having left jail more extreme and better equipped ideologically and 'professionally'". Yet, she asserted, without the release of “political” prisoners, "the Irish peace agreement would probably not have emerged". She saw, "parallels between what has happened in Ireland and (the) Israeli-Palestinian experience," and maintained that we can learn much from the Irish experience.
But a close look at the release of the IRA terrorists reveals that it was subject to many pre-requisites. It was part of a multi-component, comprehensive agreement. The entire plan went to a public referendum and was approved there, and only then was put into effect by legislation. The releases were explicitly limited to members of organisations that maintained an unequivocal ceasefire. And the majority of those prisoners were due to be released anyway in the following 24 months.
Not a trace of these factors is present in Israel's case.
Adato's description of the Irish experience led her to this starry-eyed view of how it would work in our part of the world:
“One aspect would be a public statement by the Palestinian leadership, taking responsibility for the release process and for formulating a plan for supervision and rehabilitation of released prisoners", with "parole-officer type of supervision and a study and vocational training program", and "a public appeal by the PA leadership to prisoner leaders in the jails to openly declare their intention of moving from armed struggle and attempts to launch terrorist attacks".
Here we lose Adato to the realm of fantasy. Her scenario is certainly enticing. But making far-reaching decisions like prisoner releases based on such dreams is fraught with danger.
Back in the real world, the Palestinian Authority is holding on to power by its fingernails. Its appeals to other terror factions to adhere to the ceasefire are repeatedly rejected. Nothing even faintly resembling disarmament of the terrorists has been initiated by the PA. The overtly-terrorist organisation, Hamas, is currently so far ahead in the opinion polls that the PA has indefinitely postponed the July parliamentary elections.
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