For decades, the United States has urged foreign governments not to free prisoners who have killed Americans. But a man who murdered an American was freed this week by Israel in a prisoner-release deal encouraged by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Among those released Tuesday as an inducement to the Palestinian Authority to return to peace negotiations was Al-Haaj Othman Amar Mustafa, a Palestinian convicted in 1991 of killing Frederick Steven Rosenfeld, who the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time of his death reported was a former U.S. Marine and U.S. citizen.
Mustafa was sentenced by an Israeli military court to life after he and two other assailants murdered Rosenfeld in 1989, 21 years after the former Marine emigrated to Israel. According to an Associated Press account of Mustafa’s trial before a military court, Mustafa and two others met Rosenfeld as he was hiking near the settlement where he lived in Ariel. At first, the three men befriended Rosenfeld and even posed for a photo. “Minutes after the picture was taken, the three stabbed Rosenfeld and left him for dead, according to their confession,” the AP dispatch said.
Today Mustafa is a free man, one of 26 Palestinians released from Israeli jails on Tuesday, the first group of a total of 104 prisoners Israel has promised to free in exchange for Palestinian participation in a new peace process. The list of prisoners was negotiated with the Palestinian Authority, at the urging of Secretary Kerry.
Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, told The Daily Beast Thursday, “The State Department conveyed the administration’s concerns regarding the release of this prisoner to the government of Israel, while recognizing the victim was a dual national of Israel and the United States.”
Harf said the Israeli side “acknowledged our views, but it was ultimately their decision to determine which prisoners to release. This is a very difficult situation for all involved, and further highlights the importance of making these negotiations successful.”
Since 2009, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government until and unless Israel froze construction in the West Bank as well as east Jerusalem, the city Israel regards as its capital. Abbas had negotiated with Netanyahu’s predecessor even as Israel continued to build housing and other structures in the West Bank and Jerusalem as late as 2008, but he changed his position after President Obama began to publicly demand such a freeze from Netanyahu. Abbas did meet with Israeli negotiators once in 2010 as an Israeli settlement freeze was expiring, but the meeting failed to restart the long-dormant peace process.
Kerry came around to the position that the settlement freeze was an obstacle to peace and began looking for another way to bring Abbas to the negotiations table. The agreement included Israel’s commitment to release 104 Palestinians detained for crimes committed before the Oslo peace process began in earnest in 1994.
Mustafa was one of those prisoners. Reuters reported on Wednesday that when he arrived back home to the West Bank, he was greeted as a hero. The story also said released prisoners would be receiving a stipend from the Palestinian Authority worth about $1,120 a month.
“As I understand the facts, there are only two possibilities,” said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was a very bad screwup by the State Department not to demand that he remain incarcerated or it is a silent change of policy. I believe the policy has always been that we oppose the release of anyone who has committed terrorism against Americans.”
Abrams pointed to U.S. public statements in 2005 after Germany freed Mohammed Ali Hammadi, a member of Hezbollah who participated in the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. When Hammadi was released in 2005, a State Department spokesman said, “We’re going to make every effort to see that he stands trial in the United States for what he did and face justice.”
Hammadi remains at large.