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What would have happened if the damage to the wing of the plane that dropped a one-ton bomb, killing 11 sleeping Palestinian children, had forced the Israeli pilot to eject over Gaza? Would his release not have been the first subject on the agenda of a meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)?

Who would have been prepared to agree that the pilot should remain jailed "because his hands were stained with blood?" We do not leave prisoners - sorry, prisoners of war - on the battlefield, even if they are dead. On our side, those who kill such prisoners are pardoned and able to reach key positions. But when it is the Palestinians we are talking about, everyone is called a terrorist.

When the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners is raised, such as in a meeting between Sharon and Abbas, government policy is determined by Israeli public opinion. The Arabs have neither families nor public opinion. Who cares that they also make the same distinctions between prisoners and POWs? What do we care if the Palestinian public is demanding of its leaders "to bring the children home?" Only a handful of bereaved parents, such as Rami Elhanan, whose daughter Smadar was murdered in a Jerusalem terrorist attack, and other members of the Forum for Bereaved Parents, who are prepared to call for the release of their children's murderers so that the murder of another child can be prevented.

Even security considerations, such as strengthening Abu Mazen's position in his confrontation with extremists, have no weight when it comes to the demagogic phrase, "Blood on their hands." The Shin Bet experts well understand the extreme importance that Palestinian society attaches to freeing thousands of prisoners. They appreciate the significance of an Israeli decision to grant Abu Mazen release of 8,000 Palestinian prisoners, particularly 400 who were sentenced before the Oslo Accords.

If Sharon continues to refuse to release prisoners, Hamas will be able to claim that it forced the liberation of the Gaza Strip while Abu Mazen makes agreements, but that he is not only unable to get Israel out of the West Bank towns, he can't even obtain the release of several hundred prisoners. The results will find expression in the balance of power between the PA security forces and the armed militias, in the municipal elections that will take place in December and the parliamentary elections that are slated for January.

Freeing prisoners is not just another humanitarian gesture like removing roadblocks, but rather an integral part of any cease-fire agreement and the beginning of peace negotiations. Sharon has recently been proposing to the Palestinians that they learn from Northern Ireland how to disarm terrorist organizations. He is certainly aware that the release of prisoners was the second foundation on which the cease-fire agreement in Ireland stood. There, as in the territories, security prisoners have a tremendous influence on public opinion and on leaders. For better and for worse.

In a comprehensive document prepared on behalf of the Council for Peace and Security, Orit Adato - former head of the Prisons' Service - points to the surprising similarity between the Irish experience and the issue of the Palestinian prisoners. She makes several recommendations in this respect. She proposes that the prisoners' leadership declare publicly that they intend to renounce armed struggle and support the diplomatic process, and stop their attempts to organize terrorist attacks from behind prison bars.

Adato points out that there is in fact moderate leadership of this kind in the prisons but it is insufficiently exploited. For its part, the PA should take upon itself the preparation of a program to rehabilitate released prisoners while keeping an eye on them.

Instead of perpetuating the disagreement with the Palestinians and getting dragged into an argument with the Americans, Adato proposes a redefinition of "blood on one's hands." She notes that a stricter definition of the Irish prisoners as criminals in every respect was employed in Northern Ireland than in Israel. Neither public opinion nor the families of victims there danced for joy when the prisoners were released. For that, there is leadership.