Justice Ministry Urges Early Release for Israeli Arabs Convicted of Terror

Among those proposed for release is Karim Yunis, who, with his cousin, Maher Yunis, was convicted of involvement in the 1980 murder of a 20-year-old soldier, Avraham Blumberg.

Recommendations were made on Sunday to commute the life sentences of some 10 Israeli Arab security prisoners who have served upwards of two decades in prison for murder or accessory to murder.

The committee that considers the early release of prisoners decided to make the recommendations to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to pass them on to President Shimon Peres for a final decision.

Among those proposed for release is Karim Yunis, who, with his cousin, Maher Yunis, was convicted of involvement in the 1980 murder of a 20-year-old soldier, Avraham Blumberg.

Another well-known inmate on the committee's list is Walid Daka, from Baka al-Garbiyeh, who was convicted of involvement in the murder of soldier Moshe Tamam, 19, who, like Blumberg, was shot to death.

Security authorities over the years have opposed commuting the sentences of inmates on the committee's list, and have rejected Palestinian demands for their release.

Israeli Arab security prisoners have demanded that they be given the same treatment as Jewish security prisoners serving life terms, particularly in the shortening of their sentences.

The issue has been brought up by Arab MKs in their meetings with presidents going back to Ezer Weizman.

One Arab MK said Arab lawmakers were told by the president's office that the decision was political or in the hands of the security establishment.

A senior legal official familiar with the issue told Haaretz that an amendment passed by the Knesset in May was responsible for the change in the committee's approach. The amendment replaced the representative of the military prosecution on the committee with a representative of the pardons department in the Justice Ministry.

According to the official, the Justice Ministry recognizes that conditions of Israeli Arab prisoners from before the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord should be roughly equated to those of Jewish security prisoners, whose life terms have at times been shortened. The relevance of Oslo is that it recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had dispatched the Arab security prisoners.

"We have always viewed the institution of the president as representing all citizens, particularly the department in the President's Office that deals with requests for clemency," Israeli Arab security prisoners wrote law enforcement authorities last year. "But when it comes to requests for clemency by any of us, the discrimination is harsh, clear and painful. Many of the Jewish security prisoners were convicted and incarcerated after us and released, and we are still serving long years after them in prison."

The group has written a number of such letters, appending to them a list of Jewish security prisoners involved in murder, all of whom, except for Ami Popper, had their sentences shortened and have been released. Popper, convicted of the 1990 shooting murder of seven Palestinian laborers and the wounding of 11 others, has also had his sentence shortened - from seven life terms to 40 years in prison.

The list also includes Yona Avrushmi, who threw the grenade that killed Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig in 1983; Ze'ev Wolf and Gershon Hershkovitz, who threw a grenade into the Old City butchers' market in 1993, killing one Arab and wounding others. Another Jewish security prisoner, Yoram Shkolnik, convicted in 1993 of shooting and killing an Arab who had been arrested and bound by soldiers, had his sentence shortened to seven-and-a-half years in prison.

The Arab prisoners have in recent months been putting increasing pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, expressing disappointment in their exclusion from the Shalit swap, and demanding that their release be a pre-condition to a resumption of negotiations with Israel.

Karim Yunis, from Ara, who began serving a life sentence for Blumberg's murder in 1983, wrote an open letter to the Hamas leadership around the time of the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit. The letter warned that if Israeli Arab prisoners were not released as part of the deal, it would be considered a stab in the back.

Among the prisoners released in the Shalit swap was Maher and Karim's uncle, Sami Yunis, who was decribed as the oldest inmate in an Israeli prison.

Attorney Tamim Yunis, Karim Yunis' brother, said the family was warily optimistic about his brother's chances for release. "Even if his sentence is shortened to 35 or 40 years, it gives the feeling that the release is imminent and we hope things don't go wrong this time."

During the committee meeting at Masiyahu, the Yunis family gave the panel a book by two other former prisoners, Sufian Abu Zaida and Hisham Abdel Razek, in which they state that Karim Yunis had urged them to give up the use of arms to attain their political goals.

Palestinian prisoners at Israel's Megiddo Prison.
Itzik Ben-Malki