High Court Nixes Petition by Victims' Families to Prevent Palestinian Prisoner Release

Decision paves the way for first 26 Palestinian prisoners to go free Tuesday night; court says no legislation required for such decisions to be made.

Israel's High Court of Justice on Tuesday rejected a petition to prevent the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners as part of renewed U.S.-brokered peace talks. Twenty-six of those prisoners, some said to have "blood on their hands," are set to be released tonight to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The court, led by Chief Justice Asher Grunis, unanimously rejected the petition from the Almagor group, which represents terror victims' families, and other bereaved families. The petitioners claimed the decision to release prisoners and the process by which Israel selected which prisoners are freed cannot be determined by a small group of ministers. Instead, they argued, those decisions must be made the entire government or through legislation in the Knesset.

"Our hearts are with the bereaved families, whose pain is immense," Grunis wrote in the court's decision. "But we are certain that the authorized officials made their decision with a heavy heart, taking the families' position into account."

The court ruled that the government has the power to authorize a ministerial committee to decide on prisoner releases and that such actions do not require legislation for approval.

The trio of judges, including Justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Zvi Zylbertal, also rejected the petitioners' argument that existing policy – according to which the families have 48 hours to respond the list of prisoners is published – violates their rights. They argued that the country's Rights of Victims of Crime Law allows them to submit written opposition to actions such as plea bargains or pardons related to criminals who harmed them or their family members. However, the judges rejected this claim, saying written opposition applies only to pardons in ordinary criminal proceedings.

"The issue at the center of this petition is a loaded and complex one that stands at the heart of public debate," the court wrote in its ruling. "However, we face a legal question: Is there cause for us to intervene in the government's decision to release prisoners as part of the negotiations with the Palestinians?"

The judges went on to say that the government may authorize a team of ministers to be responsible for various matters related to prisoner releases, and that the claim that victims of crime should be allowed to respond in writing to developments in their cases has been rejected by the court in past rulings.

The judges said the policy of allowing 48 hours for a response has also been put to the test in prior petitions, and the court found the policy did not justify judicial intervention.

"We must remember that we have to examine whether there is some fault in the government's decision that warrants judicial intervention," the judges wrote. "For the reasons we detailed here, we did not find such a flaw in the government's decision."

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu) told Israel Radio that while he was disappointed that the government decided to release the prisoners, the High Court of Justice did well not to interfere.

Senior Fatah official Hisham Abdel Razek, a former minister for prisoner affairs in the Palestinian Authority, also spoke on the radio program, saying that he believes that most Israelis and Palestinians support measures that promote the peace process. Neither side should let the emotions of bereaved families dictate policy, he said.

Israel's cabinet late last month approved the release of 104 Arab prisoners to help restart U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians after nearly three years of diplomatic stagnation.

Thirteen ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet voted in favor of the prisoner release, seven voted against and two abstained, a government official said.

"The cabinet has authorized the opening of diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians...," said a statement issued by the prime minister's office.

Netanyahu had urged divided rightists in his cabinet to back the prisoner deal.

"This moment is not easy for me, is not easy for the cabinet ministers, and is not easy especially for the bereaved families, whose feelings I understand," he said when the cabinet met, referring to families who have lost members in attacks.

"But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the nation and this is one of those moments."