Prisoner release criticized by bereaved families, Israeli legislators

Israel’s ministerial committee tasked with overseeing the freeing of 104 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations approved the release of a second set of 26 prisoners, to take place overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday. 

On Monday, the Israel Prison Service's Nachshon Prisoner Transports Unit transferred the 26 prisoners in question to Ofer Prison, where they underwent the routine identification verification and medical examination process. The prisoners then signed a legal document stipulating that they would abandon all terror-related activities as a condition of their release. They are scheduled to leave the prison late Tuesday night under heavy guard, as 21 of them will be shuttled to the Bitunia checkpoint and will return to the West Bank, while the remaining five will return to the Gaza Strip via the Erez crossing

Click photo to download. Caption: Relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks hold signs as they protest the release Palestinian prisoners for Israel-Palestinian conflict negotiations on August 13, 2013, outside Ayalon prison near Ramle. Credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90.

Israeli families with relatives killed in terrorist attacks have protested the latest phase of the prisoner release. “It appears as though as of today negotiations are stuck and we are continuing to free terrorists. We are simply shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Yossi Mendelevitch, one of the prominent activists among the bereaved families.

Representatives from bereaved families in the Almagor Terror Victims Association had sent a letter Sunday to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, asking him to prevent the prisoner release. Weinstein’s deputy, attorney Dina Zilber, responded with a statement saying that freeing prisoners in negotiations “is a clearly political issue in which all of the considerations have been weighed with the highest scrutiny by the executive authorities.”

Members of the bereaved families also held a protest rally Monday outside the Ofer Prison. More than 4,500 people attended the rally, which was organized by Almagor, joining hands and creating a human chain that surrounded much of the prison's exterior compound. Some protesters carried signs reading “Jewish blood is not cheap” and “stop the prisoners release.” Others were carrying photos of loved ones killed in terror attacks. 

“A red line has been crossed here today,” Gila Molcho, whose brother, attorney Ian Feinberg, was murdered in Gaza in 1993, told the protesters. One of Feinberg's killers was released as part of the Schalit deal and another is slated to be released Tuesday.

“My brother believed in justice. He believed in people. This is a terrible injustice. How can families be trampled over like this? We are not a 'gesture' -- it's time for the prime minister to wake up,” she said.

The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee convened Monday to prepare for the prisoner release, where committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud Beiteinu) also voiced her opposition, saying, “The release of prisoners will lead to more terror.”

“No normal country releases murderers. In return, we got rockets fired into Ashkelon, a tunnel from Egypt and murders of Israelis. Why do we need to give anything in exchange for negotiations?” Regev said.

Attorney Yifat Raveh from the Israeli Justice Ministry briefed the committee on the way the bereaved families had been notified. “Two hours after the list was finalized, the families were contacted through case workers and the representative organization for victims of terror. Not everyone was reached,” Raveh said.

One bereaved father responded that only seven of the 16 families were notified. “They could have prepared in advance and informed the families in the best possible manner,” Regev said.

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority has begun preparing celebrations for Wednesday night after Israel releases the terrorist prisoners. Most of the 26 prisoners being released Tuesday night belong to the Fatah faction. Those returning to the West Bank will be met with a formal reception and celebration, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in attendance.

Relatives of Hazem Kassem Shbair, who murdered Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg in 1994 at a construction site and was sentenced to life imprisonment, said that they were preparing a big reception for his return. 

“My brother no longer supports terrorism,” his brother Souad Shbair said. “He wants to get out, get married and bring children to this world.”

Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Qaraqe said the prisoner release was giving people hope “that all Palestinian prisoners could be released."

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called ordering the Palestinian prisoners' release “the hardest decisions” he had to make as Prime Minister of Israel.

“I am sure that any prime minister who has ever had to make a similar decision in the past has agonized over it as well, given the injustice of seeing these heinous murderers freed before they have finished serving their sentences in full,” Netanyahu said. “My heart goes out to the bereaved families. This decision was a necessary evil, dictated by the reality we live in.”

Earlier Netanyahu had leveled harsh criticism against his coalition partner, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (HaBayit HaYehudi), who proposed legislating a law that would prohibit the government from releasing prisoners convicted of security-related crimes against Jews. Netanyahu told Likud ministers that Bennett “is trying to use deplorable means to circumvent the government.” The Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided to reject the bill.

Speaking with Israel Hayom on Sunday, two senior Likud minister remarked that the agreement to release prisoners was made between the prime minister and U.S. President Barack Obama, and that by cooperating, Netanyahu neutralized the Palestinian demands to base the negotiations on pre-1967 lines and to freeze Jewish construction.

On his Facebook page, Bennett wrote that his bill “was designed to prevent the release of prisoners in the future.”

“The aim is to set a red line, once and for all,” he wrote. “The State of Israel has been making a fool of itself for 20 years, making deals to release terrorists and it is time to put and end to all that. The release of terrorists is not moral, it weakens Israel, endangers the lives of its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in every democratic way possible.”

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Posted on October 29, 2013 .