And if Thousands of Prisoners Go Free?

We don't have to recall Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi's statements to know that the danger in releasing the prisoners is less than what is being described. The opportunity, in contrast, is great.

Remember Zakariya Zubeidi, Israel's "most wanted," commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin, symbol of the armed struggle, enemy of the people? Now he's an official in the Palestinian Authority's Prisoners Ministry, devoting his free time to the Freedom Theater in his refugee camp. He is helping Udi Aloni and Juliano Mer put on "Antigone" in the Jenin refugee camp, and a film is to be produced based on the play starring the theater's company of amateur actors.

Since Israel granted Zubeidi partial amnesty, he has fathered two children and a third is on the way. He built himself a new house to replace the one the Israel Defense Forces destroyed, and he says he has hung up his gun. The days of the armed entourage that surrounded him are over, the days of fear and suspicion. The war is over. There are many others like him.

And what would happen, do you think, if Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti were to go free from Israeli prison? The Palestinians would have the kind of leader who knows us so well; one who even knows how to appreciate what should be appreciated about us. He would be busy unifying his people's factions and trying to reach an agreement with Israel. Even if Barghouti was directly involved in terror, a thousand Israeli witnesses (and friends ) have heard him over the years warn against terror. Israel would have done well to listen to him on time; we should have released him long ago.

While we are arguing over the release of the 1,000, or more precisely, the handful who are in contention, while we are being frightened day after day over their release, the question must be asked: What will happen if Israel releases not 1,000 prisoners, but thousands? The automatic response is of course: disaster. But is it? We don't have to recall GOC Northern Command Avi Mizrahi's statements, published in Haaretz yesterday, to know that the danger in releasing the prisoners is less than what is being described. The opportunity, in contrast, is great.

As opposed to the conventional thinking, the tens of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons are human beings; as opposed to the conventional thinking, they also have families whose worlds have been destroyed. Most of them are not murderers, some are political prisoners in every way; others are various kinds of "bargaining chips" or throwers of stones and Molotov cocktails and carriers of kitchen knives.

They have been sitting in jail for years. Almost all of them were sentenced by a military tribunal; the connection between the latter and a court is like the connection between a military band and music. Anyone who has ever been to a military tribunal knows that a Palestinian has almost no chance with the military judges; quite a few of them are settlers, and a Palestinian will always be found guilty unless proven otherwise.

A thousand human beings who rightly fought the occupation, some with criminal violence, some jailed since before the Oslo Accords, want freedom. There is no lack of candidates to be terrorists; terrorism stops as the result of a political and social decision. In any case, most of them will be freed one day; their sentences were disproportionate to begin with, imposed more because of their nationality than their offense.

They are also locked up under Israeli prisons' most severe and cruel conditions: They don't receive phone calls home, furloughs or one-third off their sentences for good behavior. Sometimes they don't even get visits. They have paid a very heavy price, and the time has come to let go of our instinct for revenge and to let them go. The time has come to think out of the box, the hollow box of threats.

A large-scale prisoner release, as an Israeli initiative and not another capitulation, not petty bargaining but a real gesture, full of good intensions, is the surest way to get a new wind blowing. It's also, of course, the surest way to get Gilad Shalit released. Don't lift the blockade because of a Turkish ship, but open the prison gates thanks to a wise and courageous Israeli leader. Does it sound like an unbelievable hallucination? Yes it does, and more's the pity.