An Eye for an Eye

Shas is leading efforts to ensure that 'Jewish terrorists' are released whenever Palestinian prisoners are set free.

In recent months, the Shas religious party was the great hope of "the Jewish prisoners" who murdered, assaulted, or planned to assault Arabs in the name of nationalism. Cabinet minister Eli Yishai has spoken to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann a few times about releasing Jewish terrorists in conjunction with a release of Arab terrorists.

Yishai proposes Israel's 60th Independence Day celebrations as a possible prisoner release date and suggests that "regular" prisoners might also be pardoned then. Olmert and Friedmann have not dismissed the idea. The state prosecutor has already ordered a preliminary process of examining, classifying and ranking the cases of Jewish prisoners.

Last Thursday, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual leader, did his best to put pressure on the pardoning authority, President Shimon Peres. The president visited the rabbi's home in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, and after an exchange of Passover greetings and polite words of welcome, the rabbi cut to the chase and expressed his resentment that Yishai had not received a clear answer about the "the matter of the pardon."

According to one person at the meeting, Peres "nodded his head" and promised "to examine each case thoroughly, with a positive attitude."

The 19 Jewish prisoners about whom Peres and Ovadia Yosef spoke are now serving a variety of sentences. Among the "heavy" prisoners are Ami Popper, who murdered seven Arab workers, was tried and sentenced to seven life terms, and had his sentence commuted to 40 years. (His wife and son were recently killed in a car accident in which he was driving while on leave from prison.)

Another heavy prisoner is Gur Hamal, who, 30 days after his friends Harel Bin-Nun and Shlomo Liebman were killed, avenged their deaths by killing Palestinians near his home in the West Bank settlement of Itamar. Other prisoners such as Bat Ayin underground members Shlomo Dvir, Yarden Morag, and Ofer Gamliel are serving lighter sentences of up to 15 years.

The driving force behind the lobby to release the Jewish prisoners is Kiryat Arba resident Shmuel Meidad, known in right-wing circles as Zangi. Meidad leads the organization Hanenu, which for years has worked for "the nationalist Jewish prisoners" and their families. He initiated a number of requests to President Peres from families of murdered victims at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and from 11 Jewish regional council leaders in the West Bank.

The families wrote to Peres that they expected the president "to hear the call for reconciliation and renewed closeness with the [religious] public that followed the painful blow which they suffered." West Bank regional council leaders, including Shaul Goldstein of Gush Etzion, Meir Rubinstein of ultra-Orthodox Beitar Ilit, and Dubi Tal of the Jordan Valley, reminded Peres that "we oppose release of terrorists, but because they were already released, nationalist Jewish prisoners must also be released to correct the discriminatory policy against them."

Weizman's legacy

Zangi and Shas' strongest card is former president Ezer Weizman's 1999 decision to significantly reduce the sentences of 14 Jewish prisoners. Some have been released over the years.

Yoram Skolnik of the South Hebron Hills was sentenced to life imprisonment after he was convicted of murdering a bound terrorist; his sentence was reduced to 12 years. Avraham Vaknin was serving a life sentence for killing a Palestinian when his sentence was reduced to 15 years, and the Kahalani brothers, Eitan and Yehoyada, were sentenced to 12 years for the attempted murder of a Palestinian from the village of Batir. Weizman reduced their sentence by four years.

Another mainstay in the literature Zangi has taken to meetings with ministers and MKs in recent days is a petition to release the Jewish prisoners signed by 45 members of the previous Knesset. Signatories include former prime minister Ariel Sharon, former MK Amram Mitzna, and many others from across the political spectrum.

Some of the MKs who signed that letter said the need to pardon Jewish terrorists was based on balance. In their requests to current MKs, Hanenu notes that not a single Jewish terrorist who was released early returned to hurting Arabs, and that the organization disagrees with comparisons between Arab terror and Jewish terror.

As far as Hanenu is concerned, even if justification of Jewish terror is wrong, it derives from "mistaken judgment against a background of compromised security, or personal factors related to judgment and the sense that one needs to exact revenge."

Zangi himself recalls that president Weizman showed him both sides of his hand when he explained to him, in Weizman's coarse style, why he decided to reduce the sentences of Jewish terrorists. "See my hand, Zangi? Everything I think - you think the opposite. And everything you think - I think the opposite. We both come from different worlds, but one thing we agree on: If you release Arab murderers, release Jewish murderers as well."