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Freeing Palestinian prisoners does not pose any danger for Israel
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Freeing Palestinian prisoners does not pose any danger for Israel

All of Israel's major security units, including the internal security service Shabak (better known as Shin Bet), agree that releasing Palestinian terrorists as part of the renewed peace talks with the Palestinians does not pose a serious security risk for Israel.

As part of the deal brokered last Friday by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel agreed to release about 100 Palestinian terrorists. Many among them are killers who were involved in killing Israeli civilians and servicemen or planning to execute terror attacks. For the Israeli government and public, they are simply murderers "with blood on their hands".

The Palestinian Authority compiled a list of 102 prisoners, including 10 from East Jerusalem, 14 Israeli-Arabs, one Druze from the Golan Heights and the rest from the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli government has made clear it would only release the Gazans and the West Bankers, contending the others are not Palestinians and thus not part of any deal between the sides.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. The prisoners are considered "heroes" in the Palestinian collective perception and narrative, having resisted the Israeli occupation and its mighty military machine in a struggle of liberation. All those on the list have served long term prison terms of 20 years or more. Some have been in prison for more than 30 years and can be considered "retired terrorists". Most are affiliated with the PLO and committed their crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO.

No less important, consecutive Israeli governments since the Oslo Accords have agreed to release them, but did not fulfill their promise, arguing that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority did not deliver on their promises, either.

Israeli society lives in the shadow of a cognitive dissonance. Israeli governments and prime ministers - Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon - committed themselves in rhetoric to the ethos of "never surrender" to terrorists. In reality all of them agreed to release terrorists for one reason or another.

But what really matters in the polarized Israeli public debate is the track record of previous Israeli prisoner releases and prisoners swaps. One of the major, which still influences the debate, was the 1984 "Jibril deal" in which Israel handed over to the PFLP-General Command, led by pro-Syrian Ahmed Jibril, nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners - in return for three captive Israeli soldiers. Three years later many of the freed terrorists became prominent leaders of the first Palestinian uprising - Intifada - in 1987.

But since then, in all the deals, including the last one more than a year ago in which Israel released another 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and held captive for five years, very few returned to terrorism. Some even became advocates for peace.

All in all, aside from the moral and emotional aspects for the families of the terror victims, from a security perspective, Israel can afford to release them. The government has the responsibility of weighing all considerations and coming to the conclusion that for the sake of security, peace and the prevention of further bloodshed, the release of terrorists is a vital national interest.

Yossi Melman is a commentator on Israeli security and intelligence issues.



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