Never Forgive? That's No Way for Israelis to Treat Prisoner Release

The purpose is to build an atmosphere of trust, to open a new chapter - as in all blood-drenched conflicts that people try to resolve.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

We should have declared it a day of national mourning. The news anchors lowered their voices, knit their brows and unfurled their somber expressions normally reserved for disasters. The news writers squeezed out every bit of emotion. The prime minister said it was the hardest decision of his life. The minister in charge of the economy, religious services, Jerusalem and the Diaspora stopped everything to say that “terrorists should be killed, not released.” The deputy minister for transportation and infrastructure said it was a “historic mistake.” The only thing we didn't do was lower the flags to half-staff.

And what happened that day? Twenty-six Palestinian prisoners were released after around 25 years in their jail cells. One headline screams “Lawless men” while another shouts “Abominable murderers” as the newspapers compete with each other. They show photographs of right-wing demonstrators wearing kaffiyehs, with one waving his red-painted hands on the front page. It's a gentle hint about that other guy with blood on his hands, and it's always the blood of Jews.

The national hysteria was orchestrated with the cynicism that characterizes such occasions. The media's pimps of emotion have turned a nice profit once again, and the right-wing activists have reaped the benefits. What about Israel? It once again sees itself in a light it doesn't particularly like: wallowing like the mother of all victims. Oh how heavily we must pay. Oh the concessions we're forced to make.

“That’s it. Nothing will stop it now,” the anchorman began the broadcast as the catastrophe drew near and Israelis were ordered to hunch over in pain. But the living weren't the only ones mobilized for the victims’ parade. This time they didn't mobilize the bereaved families, they mobilized the dead themselves. A PR agency tacked dozens of posters on soldiers' graves: “You died in vain.” And all for 26 prisoners.

Even the celebrations in Ramallah — with the mothers and fathers naturally glad to see their sons after decades in prison under harsh conditions, with no furloughs or telephone calls — were also portrayed as a knife stabbing our suffering nation’s heart. The unsightly release took place in the dead of night to put a damper on the festivities — you rude people, how dare you rejoice?

Murderers go free in the State of Israel. Even the most abhorrent of them, those who murdered for pay, those who murdered their own children, their wives, their helpless victims, are released from prison at some point — and that's a good thing. Nobody declares a day of mourning because of it. Only the victims’ families feel the pain, and even then, not all of them do. Even among them there are noble people who realize that even the cruelest criminal deserves clemency once he has served long years in a prison that's as harsh as hell.

But when Palestinian prisoners are freed, including vile murderers, no matter how much time has passed or who they are or what they did, mourning is decreed. Never forgive and never forget — but for a moment we've forgotten the original purpose of the prisoner release: to build an atmosphere of trust, to open a new chapter, as in all blood-drenched conflicts that people try to resolve. But Israel doesn't want that. It's releasing the prisoners because the U.S. secretary of state has forced it to. It doesn't even try to put up a pretense of good intentions.

To tell the truth, even though I understand the feelings of the victims’ families, who are pained to see their dear ones’ murderers go free, my heart is also with the released prisoners and their families. They've all paid a heavy price. Some have expressed remorse. It's very doubtful that even one of them, in the autumn of his life, will repeat his actions.

They're fighting for the liberation of their people, a just struggle waged by abominable means, and they thought, wrongly, that their acts of murder would bring them closer to their goal. They're not the first people in history to act this way, Israel included, nor will they be the last. But at some point they too may be forgiven.

A protester dressed in a kaffiyeh. The sign says "death to the murderers.'Credit: Emil Salman

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