Releasing Palestinian prisoners as a political gesture erodes Israel’s democratic fabric and challenges the country’s core sense of justice. Ironically, it is the dissemination of justice and the people of Israel’s faith in that justice that has kept their society together.
The citizens of a democratic country expect and believe that evil will be punished and that good will prevail. They believe that the government they elected protects them and ensures that those who murder do not go free. The exception to that expectation occurs only when the murderer is exonerated or pardoned. And when pardons do come, society takes notice and asks if the person really did the heinous act. The pardon is the safety valve that corrects the mistakes of justice.
Israel, like all democracies, relies on a series of check and balances.
The prime minister of Israel and his cabinet are legally responsible for foreign affairs and for the safety and security of the state. About that there is no question. That ruling, just issued by the Israeli Supreme Court, paved the way for convicted Palestinian terrorists to be transferred to Gaza and to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The court ruled against the challenge of releasing the prisoners. They said that the prime minister had absolute authority in the matter.
Here is the problem: These were neither military prisoners nor security prisoners. The released prisoners and their fellow cell and soul mates awaiting imminent release were tried and convicted in civilian courts. And even if terror and nationalistic agendas were part of their collective diabolical mindset, all of these prisoners, each and every one, was tried for and convicted of murder and/or attempted murder.
Not one of these prisoners was pardoned. Not one was granted amnesty. They were all simply released in a political deal.
[Related: Who Israel released]
Justice, judgment and punishment were shoved aside. Checks and balances were thrown out. The political side trampled on the judicial branch. Had these prisoners been under military jurisdiction, I would not have liked the decision, but I would understand it. The military convicts and frees according to different standards. If these were high-security prisoners, I could understand that, too. But they are not.
Look at crimes perpetrated by some of these 26 released murderers, 14 of whom are now at home in Gaza, the others released to roam the West Bank:
• Abu Moussa Salam Ali Atiya had been jailed since 1994 for the murder of Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg. His victim was born in Poland in 1927, and most of his family was deported to and murdered in Sobibor. Rotenberg and his brother were sent to a labor camp. He survived the Nazis. And then, on March 29, 1994, as Rothberg knelt down to lay a floor he was axed to death by two Arab laborers. One of them was Ali Atiya.
• Kor Mattawa Hamad Faiz had been in jail since 1985 for the murder of Menahem Dadon and attempted murder of Salomon Abukasis.
• Sha’at Azat Shaban Ata was convicted of helping murder a 51-year-old woman named Simcha Levi. Levi made her living transporting Palestinian day laborers from the Gaza Strip to work in Jewish settlements. In March 1993, she picked up three men disguised as women. They were her murderers; they beat and stabbed Levi to death.
• Salah Ibrahim Ahmad Mughdad was jailed since 1993 for the murder of Israel Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum was born in Poland in 1921, survived the Holocaust, and came to Israel in 1957 and bought a farm. After a life of work in agriculture, he retired and became a night watchman at a small hotel in the seaside city Netanya. Tenenbaum was murdered on the job.
Many of the victims were older and Holocaust survivors. Their murderers are now free. Twelve of the victims were Arab. Their murderers, too, are now free. In the coming days and weeks, more murderers will be set free. The sides have just begun talking. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, has already achieved victory.
Now we wait to see what emerges at the negotiating table. We wait to see if anything emerges at the negotiating table. It might; it might not. Whatever the outcome, these released murderers will not be returning to an Israeli prison.
Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).