After years of unreasonable Israeli intransigence, President Shimon Peres this week commuted the life sentences of seven Israeli-Arab security prisoners, all of whom were convicted prior to the Oslo Accords.
Israel has long refused to release Arab prisoners who are Israeli citizens in exchange deals, or in unilateral moves. This includes the Gilad Shalit deal, in which 1,027 Arab prisoners were released. Thus, it has happened that Arab prisoners from the West Bank or Gaza who belonged to the same terror cells as Israeli Arabs were released from prison, while their Israeli counterparts remained behind bars.
The step now taken by Peres has remedied this injustice, to some extent. Other Israeli-Arab security prisoners still remain behind bars, and their sentences have not been lightened. And there are other inequities: The punishments accorded to Israeli-Arab terrorists are often many years longer than those given to murderers convicted in criminal cases. In addition, the terms of their imprisonment are much harsher than those endured by other security inmates. The convicted Israeli-Arab terrorists receive no furloughs, no private time with their wives, no phone time to call relatives. Particularly infuriating is the difference in punishment conditions meted out to Jewish security prisoners.
All seven prisoners whose sentences were reduced were convicted by a court that no longer exists - the Lod Military Court, a tribunal notorious for its harsh sentences. Authority to lessen their sentences rested with the Defense Ministry, which displayed no mercy. Recently these prisoners' case files were sent to the Ministry of Justice's pardons department, which had strongly supported the commutation of their sentences.
The fact that the offenders committed their crimes before the signing of the Oslo Accords, and that they had expressed remorse, had done little to help them until now; Israel refused to alter their punishments. Heeding the counsel of the justice minister, President Peres chose the most minimal measure of clemency available to him. That is regrettable, but it is nevertheless laudable that this injustice has been overturned, and the unfairness suffered by these prisoners has been mitigated.
While the prisoners, who all had blood on their hands, deserved stiff prison sentences, these sentences should have been proportionate and equal to those given to other prisoners who had committed similar offenses. Most of the seven have been behind bars for more than 20 years, without knowing if and when they would be released. That inequity has now been curtailed, albeit belatedly and not entirely.
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