Israel torn by morality of Shalit prisoner swap
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - For hundreds of Israelis whose daughters, sons, fathers and mothers were killed in Palestinian attacks, this week will bring an ordeal of renewed grief that nothing can alleviate, not even the national celebration of a lost soldier's homecoming.
The imminent release from prison of hundreds of Palestinian militants in exchange for a lone Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit, expected on Tuesday, reopens deep emotional wounds, stirring bitterness with anger.
Some Israelis believe their government is giving in to terrorism and opening the door to further blackmail by swapping 1,027 Palestinians convicted of violence against Jews for the liberty of one man.
"I am angry. It should not have ended this way," said Yitzhak Maoz, whose daughter was one of 15 Israelis killed in a Palestinian suicide bomb attack on a central Jerusalem pizzeria in 2001. One of those convicted will soon be free.
Ahlam Tamimi, now 32, is among the Palestinians to be liberated in the swap for Shalit, who has been held by Palestinian Islamist militants of the Hamas movement for five years, somewhere in the Gaza Strip.
A reporter with local television before joining the armed wing of Hamas, Tamimi was convicted of helping to choose targets for suicide attacks and driving the bomber to the pizzeria. She was sentenced to serve 16 life terms.
"I am very happy that Gilad Shalit is being released ... because five years is far too long," said Maoz. But the swap is immoral and a danger, releasing murderers from just punishment who may try to kill more Jews, he said.
"I don't know if there is anything I can do against this deal. I lost a daughter. It is a whole world. It is part of my life."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who agreed to the terms of the swap last week after three years of negotiations with Hamas over who would and who would not be set free, says approving the final list was "a difficult decision".
Many Israelis sympathise. "Nobody envies Benjamin Netanyahu today," wrote Jerusalem-based columnist Uri Dromi.
"The decision he made is contrary to everything he believed in. In the books he published and in the speeches he made, he has always been closer to the American position: Zero tolerance to terror, no negotiations with the terrorists."
Netanyahu knew he would be accused of seeking popularity by giving in to a tireless campaign by family and supporters for the release of Shalit, who was 19 when he was abducted near the Gaza border to be held by Hamas for a future prisoner exchange.
Since the deal was announced, Gaza militants have made it even harder for Netanyahu, claiming a triumph over Zionists and making loud and public threats to capture more Jewish hostages, until all Palestinians are freed from Israel's prisons.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza also await the prisoner release with mixed emotions, having seen many thousands of their own imprisoned over the years in the cause of ending Israeli occupation in lands the Jewish state took in a 1967 war.
Some Israelis see the swap as an abject capitulation.
One man whose parents were killed in the Jerusalem pizzeria bombing was arrested on Friday on suspicion of defacing a Tel Aviv memorial to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a war hero assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995 for trying to make peace with the Palestinians.
Graffiti called for Rabin's killer to be freed and included the slogan "Price Tag", the calling card of hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank who have attacked Palestinian mosques.
Many Israelis are torn.
One Jerusalem merchant, aged 40, said he almost cried when he saw Shalit's mother "smiling at last" when news of her son's negotiated release was announced last week. "But I have experienced a terrorist attack, and I can hardly accept that such people are set free."
Much has been made of the thousand-to-one imbalance of the prisoner trade. But it reflects the reality. Shalit was the only Israeli in Palestinian hands, while 6,000 Palestinians are imprisoned by Israel, mostly for violence they say is justified as resistance to military occupation by a far stronger adversary of which the young soldier was a living symbol.
Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in a three-week war in 2008-09 in which 13 Israeli lives were lost. Israel was widely condemned for using disproportionate force.
At bottom, the debate over the exchange is less about disproportionate concessions than about the morality and political expedience of negotiation and amnesty, dividing those who see hope of peace and eventual reconciliation with Palestinians from those who believe only superior force can secure Israel's future.
"Hamas may be strengthened, and murderers will be left to roam free to carry out more vicious schemes," Dromi wrote. "In my heart, however, and in the heart of every Israeli today, there is a renewed feeling of solidarity. We are still willing to sacrifice a lot in order to bring one of our boys home."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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