Call it the dark side of the peace process. Just hours before the start of new negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on Wednesday, Israel released 26 prisoners its courts had convicted of murder or accessory to murder.
The prisoners were freed as an inducement for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to participate in the peace talks. Since 2009, Abbas has said he would participate in negotiations only if Israel stopped settlement activity after President Obama imposed the condition on Israel in the first year of his first term. But Abbas has moderated his position at the behest of Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made restarting the peace process a high priority. The moderation of Abbas was tested this week after Israel announced new housing construction in some West Bank settlements.
Palestinian negotiators have said they expect Israel to release 104 prisoners. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, told Israeli Arabic-language radio on Tuesday, “We hope to put into effect what we’ve agreed on...we hope for the release of 104 prisoners. Each will return to his house. This is what we’ve agreed on.” He added, “There is a clear understanding between us and the Americans and Israelis. Any change [in that] will mean the agreement is off the table.”
While Israel holds thousands of Palestinians in prison, some for small offenses such as throwing rocks, the prisoners released Tuesday evening were convicted of more serious crimes. Among the released are Palestinians who have plotted suicide bombing attacks, thrown grenades at checkpoints, and committed murder, according to documents published by the Jerusalem Post. One of them, 40-year-old Atiyeh Salem Abu Musa, was jailed in 1994 for hacking a Holocaust survivor to death with an ax.
Some families of victims of prisoners who have been released in the past are now seeking a meeting with Kerry to explain to him what they see as the dangers of pressuring Israel to release to release Palestinians from prison.
“We don’t see this as a step towards peace,” Arnold Roth, one of the Israelis who helped organize a letter to the secretary of State, told The Daily Beast. “The objection is to the madness of positing the peace process on the prior release of murderers. We support a peace process.”
Roth has some experience with the pain of seeing the killer of a loved one go free. His daughter, Malki, was killed in Aug. 9, 2001, in the bombing of a Sbarro pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem. One of the planners of that attack, Ahlam Tamimi, who also broadcast the bombing for Palestinian television from Ramallah, walked free from multiple life sentences in 2011. Tamimi was one of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces corporal who was abducted in 2006 by Hamas in a cross-border raid. Roth, who is still mourning the death of his 15-year-old daughter, said Tamimi has since married and is now pregnant with a child of her own.
Roth signed a letter sent Tuesday to Kerry asking him for a meeting. “Meet with us,” wrote Roth and 16 other family members of victims. “Let us explain why being complicit in turning the killers of our children into heroes and ‘freedom fighters’ must not be part of any policy befitting a great nation and moral exemplar like the United States.”
Kerry “respects the exclusive right of the Israeli government to make these decisions.”
Kerry and other State Department officials have kept largely quiet on the behind-the-scenes dealmaking needed to bring the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. A State Department spokeswoman on Tuesday declined to call the prisoners scheduled for release “terrorists” when asked.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, told The Daily Beast, “We’ve received the letter today, and we’re reviewing it.” She also said Kerry “respects the exclusive right of the Israeli government to make these decisions.” But Harf stressed that Israel alone made the decision to release the prisoners.
“The decision to release these prisoners was taken by Israel only after the most serious review, at the highest levels of the Israeli government,” she said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu made a tough decision that he determined was in the best interests of the Israeli people.”
Said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine: “Some of the people who have been released clearly did some bloody deeds. Some of the people who are being released are now old, some are affiliated with organizations that are not functional.”
Erekat told reporters on Tuesday that he was disappointed the Israeli side had not allowed his side to have input in choosing the prisoners scheduled for release.