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The Palestinian Prisoner Release and its Shades of Grey

This week, I planned to write something a little more upbeat and uplifting. It seemed overdue. But then the release of twenty-six Palestinian prisoners to Gaza and the West Bank warranted some deep reflection and analysis.

The week’s unnerving events began on Monday night when arocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system on the outskirts of Eilat. Palestinian sources reported that a Muslim terrorist group operating in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip took responsibility for the attack. In response, the IDF issued an airstrike on Gaza.

Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman, said “this is an absurd situation that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world. The IDF is charged with, and will continue to operate in order to safeguard Israel’s civilians, and combat terror and its infrastructure the in the Gaza Strip.”

Indeed, this rocket fire is hard to reconcile at a time when Israel is making such an extraordinary sacrifice, and it does not foster much optimism.

Regardless of one’s personal views or political affiliation, the release of Palestinian prisoners is always a time of great sadness in Israel. Everyone has lost a brother or sister, mother or father, aunt or uncle in the army or in acts of terror, and so there is a great feeling of identification with the distraught families. At the same time, however, it is also a period of bitter divide and opposition.

The prisoners to be released were named by the Israeli Prison Service shortly after midnight on Sunday, giving Israelis 48 hours to submit legal challenges to the Supreme Court.

Family members of terror victims petitioned the High Court of Justice on Monday to issue a temporary injunction on the release of the prisoners, claiming that “counter to government promises, six of those on the list were tried after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993.” However, the court rejected the appeal by a victims’ rights group. And so, eleven Palestinians were returned to the West Bank and fifteen to Gaza.

I was moved to receive an open letter from the Bereaved Families of Peace and Justice, written to US Secretary of State, John Kerry. All signatories to the letter have lost children or parents in acts of terror.

“We are left with many questions and few answers. The deep pain within us expresses not only our private grief but the expectation of more unbearable losses in the future that will threaten our society and grimly enlarge the ranks of those like us – families who have lost our children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers to Palestinian murderers.”

“Meet with us. Let us explain why being complicit in turning the killers of our children and parents into heroes and ‘freedom fighters’ must not be part of any policy befitting a great nation and moral exemplar like the United States. It is not too late. We ask you to make time to meet with a small group of us when you come back to this area in the coming days. We urge you to re-connect with the human dimension of the process you have started.”

As many of you may have already read, the acts committed by these terrorists are chilling. They include the murders of high school children travelling on a bus, as well as a Holocaust survivor. The crimes are cowardly and appalling. The full list of prisoners can be seen here.

Most disturbing and difficult to stomach is the celebratory reception of these terrorists by Abbas, the PA and the Palestinian population in the last thirty-six hours. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the 11 sent to the West Bank, while crowds met the other 15 in Gaza.

As reported by Haaretz, in the northern Gaza Strip, hundreds of people gathered at the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing. Fireworks lit the night sky, as supporters of Hamas and Fatah waved flags and chanted victory.

“We congratulate ourselves and our families for our brothers who left the darkness of the prisons for the light of the sun of freedom. We say to them and to you that the remainder are on their way, these are just the first,” Abbas said.

Like many I was also repulsed by these images of jubilee on the streets, and very quickly felt angry with the Israeli government for agreeing to what seems such a futile arrangement. Yet, the words of a very brave and admirable woman changed my perspective full circle.

Einat Kinstler’s father, Avraham, was 84-years old when he was attacked and killed by Ramahi Salah Abdallah Faraj in 1992. This killer was amongst the group released early this week.

In an interview with the Times of Israel Einat said:  “If the government believes releasing the murderer will help advance peace, there is no doubt that it is the right thing to do. It is not only its right to do so, it is its obligation. We have to separate feelings from politics.”

She continued: “Just because our father was murdered doesn’t give us any special privileges in making political decisions. The state is authorized to do as it feels with this murderer and the other murderers.” Einat stressed that she supported the families’ right to protest, but not to impede the government’s decision.

I was blown away by the humbling attitude of this grieving woman. By no means does this diminish the pain of the victims’ families, or their personal right to campaign to keep the killers locked up.

However, Einat’s statement should be cause for a re-evaluation of our responses to the government’s decision as Jews living in the diaspora.

Many people in our community have taken to social media and blogs to condemn the Israeli leadership for releasing these killers. However, I echo the sentiment of our President, Philip Chester, who said in a statement to the Jewish News that, “living in Australia we are not in a position to judge the Israeli government on the release of Palestinian prisoners, and we appreciate the complexity of the situation. However, we think it is intolerable that Israel has to agree in advance to the release of many terrorists with blood on their hands.”

Announcing the imminent releases late last month, it was obvious to any observer that Prime Minister Netanyahu was pain stricken at what he described as an “extremely difficult decision.” As one of the most right-wing leaders Israel has seen in the last decade, it is undoubtedly not a decision he or his leadership team take lightly.

In an open letter to the public, Netanyahu added: “It pains the bereaved families, it pains the entire Israeli public and it pains me very much. It clashes with a foundational value — justice.”

But, he added, “Every now and then prime ministers need to take decisions that fly in the face of public opinion — for the good of the country.”

It is precisely this, which as a community, we must remember. We should recognize that the situation, as always, is not black and white, but is shaded in all sorts of grey. It is not our place here to condemn the Israeli leadership for making this move, which it deems necessary in striving for security for its citizens. Rather, it is our obligation to come out in stark support. In my social media travels, I have seen some who have done this, but many who have not.

In representing the Zionist Federation of Australia, which is committed to representing the interests and aims of the Israeli government of the day, we must come out and offer our unwavering backing for the Israeli leadership when it needs us most. I mean this with no condescension. But rather, it is a result of my own reflection and attempt to reconcile the week’s difficult events.  After all, if Einat Kinstler can rise above, what’s our excuse?


Gabrielle Debinski

Media and Advocacy Director 

Zionist Federation of Australia