Surrender for Punishment
“The release of terrorists,” concluded Benjamin Netanyahu in Fighting Terrorism (1995), “is a mistake the Israeli government repeats time and time again.” Such prisoner releases, he warned, “only embolden terrorists . . . [and] they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they were supposed to defuse.”
In the years since, the lesson of how to treat convicted terrorists has been repeatedly forgotten by Israeli government officials. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has released more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, including many who had committed heinous crimes. From 1993-1999, according to the Almagor Terrorist Victims Association (ATVA), 123 Israelis were murdered by terrorists who had been released from prison. Between 2002-2007, 177 more Israelis were killed by released terrorists.
No Israeli leader has more abjectly surrendered to Palestinian demands for the release of terrorists than Netanyahu. His recent assurance of freedom to 104 Palestinian prisoners as an initial good will gesture to launch the negotiations so laboriously pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry reveals that Netanyahu continues to disregard his own warnings. Not two years ago, he agreed to the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza captivity for five years. The released prisoners (including the Palestinian woman who transported the bomb and suicide bomber to the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem where fifteen civilians including seven children and a pregnant woman were blown to pieces) were collectively responsible for the deaths of 569 Israelis. Although the overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the exchange that brought a soldier home, there were warnings that such a disproportionate exchange would imperil the lives of Israelis in the years to come.
Now Netanyahu has gone one step further by promising to release a total of one hundred and four prisoners – many of whom are serving life sentences for horrific murders of Israeli civilians – for nothing more than words of praise from Kerry. The Secretary’s evident obsession with restarting a Middle East “peace process” – while Egypt and Syria are self-destructing and American embassies are closing by the dozens in anticipation of al-Qaeda attacks – must be satisfied, as always at Israel’s expense.
Among the prisoners included on Netanyahu’s short list are Mohamed Dawd, who killed Ofra and Tal Moses by throwing a firebomb at their car; Jumaa Qdem and Mahmoud Kharbish, who killed a mother and her three children riding on a bus; Jamal Muhsan, who murdered an esteemed Israeli historian who was walking to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem; Adnan Effendi, who stabbed to death two 13-year-old boys in Jerusalem; Kamal Awad Ali Ahmad, convicted for murdering 16 Israelis (including a soldier); and Abu Na’ame Abrahim Mahmus Samir, who blew up a Jerusalem bus, killing six.
Netanyahu was hardly oblivious to the import of his decision to free such vicious terrorists. At the beginning of the Cabinet meeting that decided their fate he declared: “Sometimes you need to make tough decisions for the better of the entire state, and this is one of those moments.” In an open letter to Israelis after the Cabinet voted to a phased release of the prisoners over the course of nine months of negotiations, he wrote: “This is an extremely difficult decision. It pains the bereaved families, it pains the entire Israeli public and it pains me very much.” Indeed, he concluded: “It clashes with a foundational value – justice.”
It not only undermines justice; for family members of Palestinian terrorist victims it is palpably unjust. “They are selling the country for nothing,” said Eilat Osher, when she learned that her husband’s murderer was on the list. “It is inconceivable that the state can ignore the bereaved families like this,” responded Avi Bromberg, whose father was killed by a pair of Palestinian cousins. Indeed, wrote Martin Sherman, executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, it signaled “a staggering strategic surrender by Israel” that reveals “a total collapse of Israeli political resolve.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently told reporters: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” How far would “peace” negotiations progress were Netanyahu to announce: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Palestinian on our lands”? “Once the line of concessions is crossed, more atrocities and more demands are sure to follow. . . . Government must be made to understand that if they acquiesce in terrorism, they are in practice supporting it.” Those wise words are now ignored by their author, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has replaced punishment with surrender.
Jerold S. Auerbach is professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College.