Middle East
11:48 am
Mon October 17, 2011

Israel-Palestinian Prisoner Swap Stirs Strong Debate

Originally published on Tue October 18, 2011 10:05 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Israel and the Palestinians are slated to swap prisoners tomorrow. One kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, will be traded for hundreds of Palestinians, and Israel's high court will not prevent it. Many of those Palestinian prisoners are serving multiple life sentences for murder, and families of terror victims had petitioned to block the exchange.

NPR's Peter Kenyon, in Jerusalem, has more on the painful debate provoked by the deal between Israel and Hamas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Eager spectators waiting at the Israeli high court building, to see if the prisoner swap would be held up. The eventual release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, has the support of nearly four out of five Israelis, according to a poll published today. That's despite the fact that some of the men and women being freed took part in some of the most notorious and bloody attacks against Israeli civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: A street musician plays at the intersection of King George and Jaffa streets in Jerusalem, the scene of the first suicide bombing I ever covered. This is where the Sbarro pizzeria used to be until in August 2001, a young Palestinian man walked in and set off his bomb, killing 15 people - including eight children.

One of the prisoners due to be freed as part of the Gilad Shalit exchange is Ahlam Tamimi, the then-21-year-old woman who helped stage the attack and dropped the bomber off at the restaurant.

ARNOLD ROTH: 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.

KENYON: Arnold Roth 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 comprehend that unlike Malki, Ahlam Tamimi is about to get her life back.

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

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

EFRAIM INBAR: Well, first of all, it's quite clear that the Palestinian terrorists have additional incentive to try to kidnap additional Israeli soldiers because they get a huge price. A second repercussion is clear statistics, which shows that 60 percent of the released terrorists from previous exchanges have returned to terror.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KENYON: But outside the high court, as Israelis argued against the prisoner release, a woman with close-cropped, salt- and-pepper hair brought a message of support for the swap. Robi Damelin's son, David, was killed by a Palestinian sniper at a West Bank checkpoint in 2002. She says she understands Arnold Roth's pain.

ROBI DAMELIN: Actually, on Thursday, they told me that the man who killed David was going to be freed. And that was really a test for me, you know, to see if I mean what I say.

KENYON: Damelin helped form the Parents' 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.

DAMELIN: But I'm more convinced, now than ever, that if we don't release prisoners, there can be no end to this conflict. And 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.

KENYON: Damelin has taken to heart something she heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in her native South Africa, that the definition of forgiveness is giving up on your just right to revenge. It's a definition that has yet to catch on here, and some wonder if it ever will.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.