Free Them, Now

A prisoner release could provide a breath of fresh air. There is hardly a family in the territories that has not had one of its sons in prison.

If I were, heaven forbid, the father of a soldier who had been abducted to Lebanon or Gaza, I would bitterly raise my voice as loud as possible and tell the government: Free prisoners, now.

The parents of the abducted soldiers have so far refrained from making such a public demand. Instead, they have focused their protests against lifting the siege of Lebanon. Only this weekend did they finally issue a call for negotiations with Hezbollah. In their pain, they cannot be judged, but they can be told the following: Neither war nor sieges will free your children. The only way to free them is to free many Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. Does Noam Shalit, father of Gilad, think the bombing of bridges and the power station in Gaza advanced the release of his son in any way, or does he know it caused only more suffering and hatred? Does Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Udi, believe the destruction and siege of Lebanon will bring about the release of his son?

The tens of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in Rabin Square a few days ago should also be asked: What exactly do you want? To sound off emotionally but uselessly, or to bring about the release of the boys? They, too, should have made the resolute demand for the release of prisoners. Israel must decide which way it is going. Either it announces it will not conduct negotiations for the release of prisoners, as the prime minister did with much bravado when the war broke out, and then every soldier and Hebrew mother will know that if, heaven forbid, a soldier falls into captivity, the state will abandon him to their sighs; or they'll know the state will do everything to get an abducted soldier back. "Everything" means paying a price. There is no other way.

The Ron Arad affair should have taught us another important lesson: Move quickly. Those who don't want another faded film in another 20 years should act immediately. What can be achieved now might not be possible in another few months.

The Lebanese movie about the abductees broadcast last week held a mirror up to Israeli society. Suddenly it was possible to see that there are anxious and loving parents on both sides of the border. Not only in Israel do the families weep, but also in Lebanon and the occupied territories, and with the same terrible pain. There are abductees from both sides. We and they both use the same methods to try to free the boys. Hezbollah and Hamas abducted Israeli soldiers, Israel abducted Lebanese civilians. Hassan Nasrallah said in the movie that kidnapping the soldiers at Har Dov was the only way left to him to bring about the return of the abducted Lebanese. What other route did he have? Israel abducted, Hezbollah abducted, both hid information about the fate of the abductees. The vicious cycle must be broken.

Israel also cannot announce it won't negotiate and at the same time abduct 15 Lebanese civilians or half a Palestinian government and a quarter of its parliament. If it won't negotiate, why does it conduct abductions? And if Israel will negotiate, why not frankly say so and conduct negotiations quickly and with flexibility? If the Lebanese civilians were not abducted to serve as bargaining cards, which anyway did not work, maybe soldiers Omar Suwad, Adi Avitan and Benny Avraham wouldn't have been abducted. And if Samir Kuntar had been released from prison in an earlier deal, after 27 years in an Israeli prison, maybe Hezbollah would not have kidnapped Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. These questions must be answered honestly and courageously, instead of with bravado and bragging.

The issue of the security prisoners is not supposed to come up only in the context of freeing the abducted soldiers. Israel has long had an interest in freeing them. More than 9,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails nowadays; it is a nightmarish number. Anyone who knows the Shin Bet security service and the military justice system can safely assume a significant proportion of them are imprisoned for no reason. Israeli society doesn't even ask why so many are jailed. Some 750 of them have been held in prison without trial for months and years as administrative detainees, a scandal unto itself. The number of minors is also nightmarish: some 300 boys and youths, about half of whom have never been put on trial. A democratic society cannot exist if it denies freedom to so many prisoners, whose main fault was that they fought the occupation with the means used to fight occupations everywhere, including by us in the past. In the eyes of many in the world, at least some of them are rightly considered political prisoners. What are the imprisoned Palestinian parliamentarians if not political prisoners?

But this is not only a matter of values. It is also a matter of interests. A prisoner release could provide a breath of fresh air. There is hardly a family in the territories that has not had one of its sons in prison, and it is difficult to describe how such a battered society would respond to such an Israeli gesture. It would not be considered weakness, but the generosity of the occupiers. Does anyone understand what kind of dizzying political change could develop from the release of Marwan Barghouti, for example?

There is no step that could change the atmosphere as quickly as the release of prisoners. Therefore, it is time to demand the government free many prisoners, as part of the negotiations and even as a unilateral gesture. Our sons will return home, their sons will return home, and if we show some generosity, maybe we can turn over a new leaf and raise some hope in this land.