Ministers to meet again on prisoner release criteria

Gov't committee meets top Schalit negotiator; FADC members: "Gov't increasing terrorism."

PalestinianPrisoners 224 (photo credit: AP [file])
PalestinianPrisoners 224
(photo credit: AP [file])
With the government's point man on the kidnapped soldiers issue reportedly urging more flexibility regarding which prisoners to exchange for Gilad Schalit, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) reportedly opposed to changing the criteria, the committee dealing with the issue is scheduled to meet for the second time on Wednesday in an effort to draw up recommendations to bring to the government. The committee, chaired by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, held its first meeting on Monday and heard a briefing from Ofer Dekel, who has been charged by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with dealing with the kidnapped soldiers' issue. Dekel has come under criticism by senior government ministers recently for being unable to move either the Schalit issue or make progress regarding the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped by Hizbullah. One minister said Dekel had failed to budge Hamas regarding Schalit, so now was trying to budge Israel. A blackout was clamped on the deliberations of the meeting, with the Prime Minister's Office only saying that the committee would hold an additional meeting on the matter. In addition to Ramon, the committee includes Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon. Government policy, established in 2003, is that no prisoners would be released with "blood on their hands," a definition that includes not only those who actually detonated the explosives or pulled the trigger in attacks in which people were murdered or wounded, but also those who dispatched them or otherwise aided and abeted them. Among the ideas that have been raised to narrow the criteria is to take off the list of prisoners "with blood on their hands" terrorists who organized and dispatched others to carry out attacks that "did not succeed." Before the meeting, representatives of the Almagor Terrorist Victims Association showed up at the Prime Minister's Office and delivered a letter requesting a hearing before the committee. "It is inconceivable," said the letter signed by four men who lost relatives in terrorist attacks, "that on such a sensitive and moral issue with which we are connected, that you will not listen to a different voice before making a decision that has so much significance for our lives." Livni met with Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC) members late Monday morning to discuss the government's current position on possible future prisoner releases. "By being so flexible and pragmatic, the government is helping increase terrorism and foils the international fight against it," Israel Radio quoted FADC member and Likud MK Yuval Steinitz as saying. "According to the government's new formulae, a killer is no longer a killer, and the terrorist Palestinian Authority is a peace partner." FADC head MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) also expressed his opposition to releasing Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands. "I object to the release of murderers," Hanegbi told Arutz 7 radio. "A murderer is a murderer regardless of legal definitions. I hope there will be no relaxation of the term 'murderer'. Anyone who murdered Jews belongs behind lock and key. There can be concession or flexibility in this matter." Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan said that "Israel should stop dealing with definitions and rigid standards." Asserting a stance of moral impartiality, Vilan said that "in Israel too there are fighters who killed terrorists and can be considered as those with 'blood on their hands.' We call them terrorists but they [the Palestinians] call them freedom fighters." Vice Premier Rafi Eitan told Israel Radio that current criteria made a prisoner exchange "nearly impossible". He said that such criteria must be amended to give Israeli negotiators "effective tools to work with." Eitan stipulated, however, that many of the prisoners would soon be back in Israeli jails, as they are "likely to resume their course of terrorism". "We are in such a situation that, if we continue with the criteria that were used in the past, there will be no one else left to free," Labor MK Ephraim Sneh told Army Radio. "If we want to free prisoners ... and bring about the release of Gilad Schalit, we will have to broaden this." Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i said that the release of imprisoned Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti should also be considered, if a future deal signed with the Palestinians "would be a proper one." According to Vilna'i, Barghouti "may be a leader of murderers, but he never committed murder with his own hands. He is a leader, and should be treated accordingly." Barghouti had been frequently mentioned in Israel in recent years as a possible alternative to unpopular Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He is currently serving five life sentences for masterminding the murder of Israeli civilians. The London-based Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that an impending deal for the release of Schalit was expected to include about 500 prisoners, most of whom were arrested prior to the outbreak of the second intifada. Other prisoners eligible for release may include recently arrested Hamas members of the Palestinian National Council.