To release, or not to release

Security officials are united in their belief that releasing terrorists is a bad idea but they also agree that Israel’s national interest sometimes justifies freeing murderers.

IT TOOK the Israel Security Agency (ISA, better known as the Shin Bet) four days to get to the bottom of the December 22 terror attack on a bus in Bat Yam, a city just south of Tel Aviv.
All in all, 13 suspects, one Israeli Arab and 12 Palestinians from the West Bank – some of them members of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian Islamist group supported by Iran – were arrested and are being indicted. Furthermore, some 20 kilograms of explosives were found in the operation – an indication that the men arrested were planning even more daring terrorist operations.
Fortunately, the courage and cool-headed decisions by one of the passengers who spotted the suspicious hand bag and the driver who stopped the bus and ordered the passengers off saved lives. The bomb went off and a police officer was lightly wounded in the explosion.
The attack was the first of its kind in the last six months in which a known Palestinian organization was involved in planning and executing a terror attack inside Israel.
During this period, six Israelis – soldiers and civilians – have been killed in various terror incidents inside Israel and in the West Bank. But all of the incidents occurred as a result of decisions by individual Palestinians motivated by a variety of reasons (personal or family revenge, financial rewards or incitement) and were not orchestrated by known and recognized groups.
The dry data indicates an increase in Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Israel (stone throwing, demonstrations and so on) that coincides with the indefatigable efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a general framework for an interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But ISA’s researchers cannot determine whether the increase in violence points to a trend or is merely incidental. The Bat Yam incident also illustrates the efficiency of the ISA when it comes to penetrating Palestinian terror networks, collecting intelligence and cracking them. (ISA is the English acronym, for Shabak, General Security Service, or GSS. However, it is not a direct translation – the Shabak feared the historic connotation of the SS ending and decided on ISA.) But it also gives ammunition to those – especially from right-wing quarters – who oppose the Israeli government’s decision to release Palestinian terrorists from jails, as a gesture aimed at advancing peace talks between the two sides.
Some of the arrested suspects in the Bat Yam operation were known to the security services from their past involvement in acts of terror. A few of them were occasionally arrested and later released.
In recent years, we have witnessed very heated and emotional discourses between former chiefs of intelligence and the military.
They argue against and for an Israeli attack on Iran. They debate about the peace talks with the PA and the dismantling of Jewish settlements. They rarely unanimously agree on any major contentious topic. Yet when it comes to the issue of Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons, there is consensus among them – a double consensus, in fact.
The first is that releasing terrorists is a bad idea and sets an undesirable precedent. They oppose the release of terrorists as a gesture to advance negotiations. But they do support it if it is part of a comprehensive peace settlement or if Israel is left with no choice but to do it.
Their argument is that enemies release each other’s prisoners of war at the end of the conflict, not at the beginning. But this time, everything went wrong.
The US pressured Israel to make some goodwill gestures before the official opening of the talks with the PA six months ago. To smooth out the process, Kerry offered Israel a menu, a list of possible gestures. Among them were the release of prisoners, the evacuation of Israeli security forces from certain areas in the West Bank, and a freeze on construction of settlements during the nine months of the talks. Israel had the choice to select its preferred gesture.
Fearing his right-wing coalition partners – both within his own Likud party and the Bayit Yehudi party, which threatened to dismantle the government in the event of a halt in settlement construction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to release 104 Palestinian terrorists in four phases. Many among them are killers who were involved in acts of violence in which civilians and servicemen were killed. For the Israeli government and public, they are simply murderers “with blood on their hands.”
The PA compiled a list of prisoners that included 10 from East Jerusalem, 14 Israeli Arabs, one Druze from the Golan Heights and the rest from the West Bank and Gaza.
In late December 2013, the third stage was implemented. The final stage is set for April.
The term “blood on his hands” denotes that the prisoner in question was involved in murderous terror acts. The Shin Bet has drawn up an internal list of seven categories to describe those with “blood on their hands.” Some played auxiliary roles in terror attacks in which people were killed; they were drivers, bomb-makers, suppliers of the explosives and detonators. The most serious category refers to those who actually killed with their own hands, either by pulling the trigger of a gun or stabbing someone with a knife. There is even a category (which the Shin Bet does not officially admit) to describe a Palestinian terrorist who murdered his countryman – thus making a distinction between a terrorist murder of an Israeli and the murder of a Palestinian.
IN OCTOBER 2011, Israel was involved in a massive prisoner swap to win the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in which 1,027 Palestinians were freed in exchange for Shalit. Most of them were allowed to return to their homes and families either in Gaza or the West Bank. Very few, considered the most dangerous, were sent into exile abroad (some Arab countries and Turkey) or Gaza.
According to the ISA, since then, of the 1,027, 43 have been rearrested – 33 on suspicion of involvement in acts of terror and 10 for involvement in criminal activity.
Thirty-three out of 1,027 constitutes 3 percent. Is it a significant number or not? The answer is in the eyes of the ideological beholder. For right wingers, it is the ultimate evidence to prove their point.
But for professionals in the field – and here we reach the other consensus among intelligence and security chiefs – the releasing of Palestinian terrorists is not seen as posing a serious security risk for Israel.
The entire issue is much more complicated than rhetoric. The prisoners are considered heroes in the Palestinian collective perception, and are viewed as having stood up and resisted the Israeli occupation and its mighty military machine in their liberation struggle. All of those who have already been released or are set to be released in the fourth phase have already served long prison terms – more than 20 years. Some of them have been in prison for more than 30 years. Most of them are PLO-affiliated and committed their crimes before the 1993-4 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO.
No less important, consecutive Israeli governments since the Oslo Accords have agreed to release them but failed to fulfill their promises. The evasive argument was that the PLO and the PA had not delivered on their promises either.
Israeli society lives in the shadow of cognitive dissonance. All Israeli governments and its prime ministers have rhetorically committed themselves to the ethos of “never surrender” to terrorism. In reality, all of them, time and again, agreed to release terrorists for one reason or another.
But what really matters in the polarized debate enveloping the Israeli public is the question of the track record of released prisoners. One of the major prisoner swaps that still influences the debate is the socalled Jibril Deal (named after Ahmad Jibril, the leader of a pro-Syrian Palestinian terror group). In 1984, Israel agreed to release to the PFLP-General Command, led by Jibril, nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for three Israeli soldiers. Three years later, many of the released terrorists became prominent leaders of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising.
But since then, in all the deals, including the last one involving Shalit, very few returned to terrorism. In some cases, they even became advocates of peace.
All in all, aside from the moral and emotional aspects for the families of the victims, Israel, from a security perspective, can allow itself to release them. The government has the responsibility to weigh considerations and reach the conclusion that for the sake of the state, security, peace and the avoidance of further bloodshed, and for the purpose of keeping its promises and international commitments, the release of terrorist murderers is in Israel’s national interest.