Israeli victims of violence feel mixed emotions on prisoner swap

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 13, 2011 

JERUSALEM — While a celebratory atmosphere has settled over much of Israel in anticipation of the release next week of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after more than five years of captivity, for some families, the upcoming prisoner exchange is a bitter reminder of all they've lost.

On Sunday, Israel will publish the full list of the 1,027 Palestinians it will release in exchange for Shalit. The families who've lost loved ones in attacks then will have 48 hours to scan the list of names and launch appeals in Israel's high court.

It's a ritual that's occurred every time Israel has undertaken to exchange prisoners, and the court has always refused to intervene. But for the families, it's a last-ditch effort to see those they hold responsible for the attacks on their loved ones punished.

Many admit that it's an emotional struggle: One minute, they share the joy of knowing that Shalit, who's been a cause celebre in this country since Palestinian militants snatched him on June 25, 2006, will rejoin his family soon. The next, they feel overwhelming sorrow in realizing that the people they blame for the deaths of loved ones may be released.

Arnold and Frimet Roth already know that one of the women associated with their daughter's death will go free. Malka Roth was 15 years old when she was killed alongside 14 other Israelis in a suicide bombing at the Jerusalem Sbarro pizza restaurant in 2001.

Ahlam Tamimi was sentenced to 16 life terms for driving the bombers to the restaurant. A member of Hamas, she's expressed pride in the attack. The Israelis have agreed to release all 27 Palestinian women they hold.

The Roths are open about the bitterness they feel toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"With the decision to free the terrorists, Prime Minister Netanyahu, a savvy politician to the core, conveys to us his disdain for the lives of ordinary citizens like my Malka," Frimet Roth said. "A government that seeks the defeat of the terrorists must refuse to release convicted terrorists from prisons."

She added that she was happy for the Shalit family, who conducted a relentless campaign demanding that the government arrange his release that included media interviews, the distribution of life-size cutouts of Gilad Shalit and a two-year vigil in a tent pitched outside Netanyahu's residence. The vigil ended Wednesday.

Roth acknowledges that had she been in the Shalits' position, she would have "done the same" to see her child brought home.

Shalit was a private in Israel's army when Palestinian militants raided his desert outpost. He's received a promotion while he's been a hostage — he's now a sergeant — but little is known about his captivity, except the occasional videos that proved he was alive, the last of which was released in 2009. Nothing is known of his mental or physical condition.

Under the schedule that Israeli authorities announced earlier this week, Shalit will be transferred to Egypt and then to Israel on Tuesday after Israel has freed the first 450 of the Palestinians. Most of those will be allowed to return to the West Bank or Gaza, though some will be sent into exile.

Relatives of the attacks for which the Palestinians were imprisoned gathered outside Netanyahu's office Tuesday after the exchange agreement was announced. They denounced the prime minister for bowing to political pressure.

"Never have we paid such a price," said Meir Indor, the head of the Algamor Terror Victims Association. "Netanyahu clearly crumples under pressure. I would recommend that the public begin wearing bulletproof vests from now on."

Three Cabinet members voted against the deal, including Uzi Landau, a minister from Netanyahu's Likud party.

"This agreement is a great victory of terrorism and hurts Israel's deterrence and security," he said. "I pray and hope that at least since a small group of us voted against it, the government will thoroughly examine our policies from now on."

Most galling to Landau is that many of those likely to be released have expressed no remorse for their actions.

Tamimi reportedly is one of those. In a 2006 interview with Israeli reporters, she said, "I'm not sorry for what I did. I will get out of prison and I refuse to recognize Israel's existence."

Palestinian prisoners rights groups point out that many of those to be released were only loosely connected to attacks or incidents involving Israelis. Of the 1,027 to be released, 300 are serving life sentences; many of the rest are likely to be serving time for their associations with militant groups or political activities.

According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a U.S. nonprofit group that provides information about the Palestinians, Israel has imprisoned upward of 700,000 Palestinians since the 1967 Mideast war, roughly one in five of all Palestinians.

Some of those to be released have said they now have conflicting emotions about their actions. One of those is Wafa al Biss, a would-be suicide bomber who was arrested at the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza when soldiers discovered that she was carrying 20 pounds of explosives in her underwear. She'd planned on blowing herself up at Soroka hospital in the city of Beersheba in the Negev Desert.

Biss, who was 21 at the time, tearfully told reporters who were allowed to interview her after her arrest that she'd wanted to be a suicide bomber since childhood. Then she incongruously pointed out that she'd been arrested before she'd killed anyone. "Do you think they will forgive me?" she was quoted as saying at the time.

During her years in prison — she was arrested a year and four days before Shalit was taken hostage — she's given several interviews to Arab media in which she's said she wishes she'd never tried to carry out the attack and that she was "wrong."

Her parents in Gaza have said they're unsure whether she'll continue to work with militant organizations after she's free, but they were anxious to receive news of their daughter's release.

"I have been waiting for Wafa to come home since the day she was arrested," Wafa's mother, Salma al Biss, said in a 2010 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "We are always preparing for her return. Sometimes I am hopeful, and then the next day I find out there is no progress. Nothing is for sure."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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