Reporter's Notebook: The Palestinian prisoner release – this time around

It’s easy to look at these people as bloodthirsty Jew killers, but a deeper look at some stories might elicit a more objective way of looking at their crimes and punishment, and the decision to free some of them early.

Freed Palestinian prisoner prisoner Hosni Sawalha 370 (photo credit: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)
Freed Palestinian prisoner prisoner Hosni Sawalha 370
(photo credit: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)
Two years and a gulf of emotion separate this week’s return of 11 Palestinian security prisoners to the West Bank, and the joyous celebration that greeted the prisoners who were freed in October 2011 in the exchange for abducted soldier Gilad Schalit.
Back then it was a de facto Hamas victory party for people who planned suicide bombings and shooting attacks on civilians, while on the Israeli side it was the joy of watching Schalit come home mixed with the pain and fear aroused by the prisoner release.
Fast-forward to this week and Ramallah and the latest round of prisoner releases seems more like an anti-climactic side-note – an international story, certainly, but one whose meaning is still unapparent, and whose larger context is not yet known.
The feeling of anti-climax is heightened by the fact that there are so few people on either side of the Green Line who think the talks ushered in by the prisoner release will yield anything meaningful. On both sides there is cynicism.
Among Palestinians, it’s only an attempt by Israel to say it freed prisoners while continuing to expand settlements.
Among Israelis, it’s only a chance for the Palestinians to reap the public and political benefits of a prisoner release without giving up anything of their own.
Regardless of how the future might judge the wisdom and effectiveness of the prisoner release, I stood in Ramallah on Tuesday night at the end of over a week of interviewing distraught Israeli relatives of the victims, and thought a little differently.
While it’s easy to look at the people on the list as 26 bloodthirsty Jew killers, a deeper look at the stories of some might elicit – if not sympathy – then perhaps a more objective way of looking at their crimes and the punishment they received, and the decision to release them early.
It’s easy to look at them solely through the prism of the brutal murders of David Dadi and Haim Weitzman, who were stabbed to death and had their ears sliced off as keepsakes, or of Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg, who died after being struck from behind with an ax. But look at other names and other cases, and things become, maybe, a bit murkier.
Take for instance Salah Mugdad, who was imprisoned in 1993 for bludgeoning 76-year-old hotel security guard Israel Tenenbaum to death with an iron bar before stealing a TV set from the hotel. Mugdad was originally given a 32-year-sentence, which was later cut to 25. The man would have been released in just a few years, but how different was his crime from any other murder committed in the course of a robbery? How often do men who commit such crimes receive and serve a life sentence? Would 25 years in prison for an Israeli man – Jewish or Arab – who committed the same crime be considered lenient by the standards of Israeli courts?
Or take Jamil Natsheh, charged in December 1992 with being an accessory to murder, for acting as the getaway driver for a shooting attack against IDF soldiers at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Natsheh was set to be released only four months from now. Would keeping him in prison over the next four months cancel out the potential diplomatic revenue – even minor – that his name adds to the list? Furthermore, is 21 years in prison a fitting sentence by Israeli standards for being an accessory to murder? Answers don’t come easily, especially when one asks what is a life worth, and what punishment could possibly suit someone who takes the life of your child, parent or sibling.
The answer, usually, is that no punishment would be severe enough – which is probably why bereaved families don’t take part in compiling the lists of prisoners to be released, or why the loved ones of murder victims should probably not sit on juries in murder trials in the US.
For the rest of us, even with the anger wrought by watching the victory celebrations for convicted murders, stepping away from the emotion, may allow us to make a more objective assessment of the prisoner release. It may help us have a debate about whether or not there is a strategic and diplomatic price that we can afford to pay here, instead of focusing solely on the pain and injustice of it all.
All of these ideas circled through my head at the Mukata presidential compound on Tuesday night and on the way back to Tel Aviv. Most of the men looked to be in their 40s or older, and they were greeted by families and cheers from the crowd, but without the Hamas flags or the cries of “The people want another Schalit” that I remember from the Beitunia crossing in October 2011.
It was still a victory party for convicted murderers, but it felt less in-your-face than the celebration almost two years earlier. This may be because this first round didn’t include any Israeli citizens or residents of east Jerusalem, and unlike the Schalit deal, it didn’t free some of the more infamous murderers, like Ahlam Tamimi, who helped carry out the 2001 bombing at the Sbarro in Jerusalem that left 15 Israelis dead, including eight children.
In addition, of the 26 released in this round, eight were already set for release in the next three or four years.
As the night went on, a few relatives and prisoners at the Mukata expressed their desire for peace, while others spoke of being forced into resistance by Israel, or just simply their joy at being home and their hope that all Palestinian prisoners will be released soon.
While it’s hard for Israeli society to grasp the concept of celebrating the release of convicted killers, the fact that relatives would be overjoyed to have their son or father back after years in prison is understandable, regardless of the brutality of his crimes.
Arguably, it takes a certain level of detachment to interview a series of devastated relatives of terror victims, only to then try to find a human side to the men involved in the killings. They’re still all convicted killers, and nothing can change that – no matter how early they were released, or how high they were held aloft by loved ones and cheered as heroes Tuesday night in Ramallah.
Nonetheless, as a country and a people looking to find a diplomatic solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, we will face few fateful decisions that will not require us to at least attempt to set aside the emotion, pain and bloodshed.