Tuesday, 8 July 2003

Don't free prisoners, families of slain Israelis say

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- Israeli families whose loved ones have died in Palestinian terror attacks have appealed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not to succumb to growing pressure for the release of more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

But Palestinian leaders and the prisoners' families say the step is essential to bolster a shaky, week-old truce and increase the standing of reformist Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel said on Sunday that it will release 350 prisoners, but the Palestinians are demanding more. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, said in a statement Sunday that "we are ready to carry out the most powerful and dangerous military attacks inside Israel and in the settlements" unless a full release is carried out.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reiterated on Monday that Israel would not turn loose prisoners who have "blood on their hands" -- a reference to those who killed Israelis or aided the killers.

Late in the day, the prisoners announced a hunger strike to protest Israel's refusal to grant a general amnesty.

Opposition leader Shimon Peres of the Labor Party said the government stood at a crossroads: "One is not to release prisoners who would endanger our security; the other is to put an end to the intifada.

"I don't think we have to give (the Palestinians) everything they want, but we do have to show them support -- and allow Abu Mazen (as Abbas is known) to show them something."

Jailed members of radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad reportedly were instrumental in brokering the current cease-fire. Now, Abbas is under pressure to repay them by securing their release.

But on Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet ruled out a general amnesty when it approved strict legal criteria for deciding which prisoners would be freed. It specifically barred anyone who had planned or carried out attacks on Israelis, including most of the 1,000 or so jailed members of radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The prisoner issue strikes deep within Israeli and Palestinian society.

Tzafi Adonian-Haas, whose husband Eli was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber in a Jerusalem market in 1997, said she opposed the release of convicted terrorists.

"I think they should stay in prison," she said as she played with her two grandchildren, who she said had brought some hope back into her life.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about Eli. I feel as though I lost half of myself. If they had carried out these attacks in the United States, they would get the electric chair or life in prison."

As for calls by some bereaved Israeli families to release the prisoners for the sake of future peace, Adonian-Haas said, "We tried releasing prisoners during the Oslo peace process, and it got us nowhere. Now we have more than 800 Israelis dead, and I don't believe in these agreements any more.

"It's a matter of trust, and I just don't trust them."

Across town in the Palestinian village of Lifta, Mohammed Odeh and his wife had just returned from visiting their son Bilal in Ashkelon Prison, where he is serving an 18-year sentence for attempted murder.

"I feel as though I have lost him," said Mohammed, sitting in the shade of the vines in his garden. "I'm just waiting for him to come back. There is hope that sooner or later the Israelis see that this is impossible."

Bilal, 26, a university graduate in social work, was the leader of a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell that detonated a series of car bombs packed with mortars in central Jerusalem two years ago. Several people were injured in the blasts, but no one was killed.

"He did what any other Palestinian would do under occupation, and I am proud of him," said Mohammed.

Fadel Tahboub is a former Palestinian militant who has become a peace campaigner. He was captured in the late 1960s after staging a cross-border raid into Israel from Jordan and spent the next 15 years in jail. He now helps run the People's Peace Campaign, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project based in East Jerusalem that is trying to hammer out some basic principles for mutual coexistence.

But the gray-haired veteran, who is also a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's parliament in exile, the Palestine National Council, said the prisoner issue could undermine any attempt to move toward peace.

"For us, these people are not terrorists but national heroes for carrying out resistance to the occupation," Tahboub said.

"The cease-fire will collapse if they do not release them," he warned. "It will weaken Abu Mazen, and he will fall."

But Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid told Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, that it would be "impractical" to consider releasing Hamas prisoners when the group's leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, had vowed to resume attacks after the truce expires.

"When Rantisi goes on television and says that after the (cease-fire) in three months they will continue the war to wipe out the Jewish state, it is not exactly smart to demand of us to release fighters to annihilate the Jewish state," he said.

"Some of the most terrible violence has taken place as a direct result of the actions of many of the Palestinians now sitting in Israeli jails," said professor Gerald Steinberg, a political science lecturer and analyst at Bar- Ilan University.

"Over the past 10 years, on many occasions Palestinians were released from Israeli jails as part of a goodwill gesture, and they came back and committed more terrorist acts. While the Palestinians are demanding a large number of prisoner releases, I think it's extremely important for the Israeli government to say no and to pursue the legal process."

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