Risky gesture

Releasing Palestinian prisoners could turn out to be an unwarranted gamble.

September 27, 2007 20:22
3 minute read.
Risky gesture

prisoner 298. (photo credit: Channel 10)

Israel is set to free 87 more duly convicted terrorists next week. They will join 255 other convicted terrorists who were let loose last month. Most are members of Fatah, the Popular Front or the Democratic Front. About 30 of the total will be released to Gaza. The rationale underlying these unilateral "gestures of goodwill" is that the release of terrorists not affiliated to Hamas bolsters the position of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction. A number of key assumptions are involved. The first is that it pays for Israel to intervene in internecine Palestinian struggles. Fatah is hardly a friendly force. Despite statements by Abbas against the "armed struggle," terrorist groups that are part of Fatah have either participated with Hamas in joint attacks or have been in competition with Islamist terrorists over who can kill the most Israelis. There is the school of thought which maintains that Fatah ought to be boosted as the lesser of the evils facing Israel. Fatah, it is argued, is preferable to Hamas and may yet emerge as a trustworthy interlocutor and peace partner. According to this opinion, it behooves Israel to take chances to build confidence and shore up that Palestinian leader with whom it might perhaps proceed to parley. That this is a legitimate argument, however, by no means necessitates irresponsible gestures that have been proven to backfire. Considering who is on the list of about to be released convicts, setting some of them free is a gargantuan risk: The 87 do not include convicts with "blood on their hands," but not for lack of trying. Among the offenses with which they were charged are shooting at passing vehicles, laying booby-traps, lobbing firebombs, attempted murder, gunrunning and contacts with foreign agents. Slated to be let out is one such agent - Saddam Hussein's own man in Ramallah and head of the Iraqi-sponsored Arab Liberation Front. Via Racad Sallam, Saddam commissioned and financed suicide bombings. These are relatively recent offenders - the most veteran of them captured in 2001 and many only in the last seven months. Experience shows that such offenders are likeliest to return to terror. Farres Mansour, arrested on September 23 south of Nablus with a stash of explosives and guns, was among recently freed Fatah members. If a realistic probability of changing minds on the other side exists, such risks might be quasi-tolerable. The problem begins with how Israeli concessions are perceived by the other side. They are not generally seen as benevolent gestures by a society with a genuinely independent legal system, which allows its most implacable enemies their day in court, strictly adhering even to the minutiae of due process. Indeed, the overruling of verdicts involved in the offenders' early release would seem to validate the Palestinian claim that such verdicts are arbitrary and political in the first place, rather than the product of a legitimate judicial process. Furthermore, the PA has never owned up to the fact that these convicts were found guilty and deserved to be sentenced, as they would be in any self-preserving democratic setting. What, then, is the value of compromise if there is no acceptance of the very fundamental prohibition against attacking civilians? The PA has not concertedly cracked down on terror, despite abundant promises. Moreover, some of its leaders funded, nurtured and dispatched some of the very miscreants. The PA officially celebrates them as heroes instead of condemning them as villains. The impression deliberately imparted by Palestinian spokesmen is that these are arbitrarily incarcerated prisoners of conscience. There's no PA gratitude to Israel for these releases. Indeed each Israeli goodwill measure is greeted with outright ill will and fiery rhetoric about how insufficient the concession is. Such responses cast enormous doubt on the Olmert government's premise that the releases are mandated and justified by straightforward cost-benefit computations. Furthermore, of course, each additional release further erodes what remains of the already diminished Israeli deterrence. Terrorists who serve a mere few months in jail for attempted mass murder are not likely to be daunted. They are more likely to be emboldened. And so, as with previous such releases, this one, too, may backfire brutally. The lives of soldiers and security forces personnel are put on the line to thwart terror, yet the very terrorists they apprehend are soon out to try again. Rather than a credible calculated risk, this could well turn out to be an unwarranted and dangerous gamble.

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