There are no happy Jewish Israeli citizens watching the release of 26 more Palestinian murderers from Israeli prisons. It is not only the families of the victims who are upset. Their loved ones will never come home and those who murdered them are set free.
It is so hard to grasp the thought that those who took lives are now reunited with their families and can go on with their own, see their children and their grandchildren. It is even more difficult to accept that the pretense for their release is to enable negotiations for peace. Not peace, but talks about peace.
It has been said that there is no precedent in the world for this, but that is not true. There have been other cases, such as in South Africa, but that does nothing for the pain of seeing killers going free.
Prisoners who killed in the name of a national, political or religious cause are usually granted amnesty when peace treaties are signed. It is part of the process of reconciliation. In South Africa they so eloquently added the dimension of “truth and reconciliation” so that those who killed could publically take responsibility and ask for forgiveness.
We have not yet reached peace, we have no treaty and we are quite far away from truth and reconciliation.
When Israel decided to negotiate with the PLO led by Yasser Arafat, Israel crossed the line and negotiated with those that it called terrorists until that point. Arafat was called the father of all terrorists, the arch-terrorist, and yet Israel sat with him and negotiated. And when he came back to Palestine, he brought with him many who spent years in Israeli prisons for crimes against Israel and Israelis.
Arafat, it was said then, sent his people to fight against Israel and to kill Israelis.
If we sit with him, their commander, then all of those under him should also be granted freedom.
There was an understanding at the time of signing the Oslo Declaration of Principles in September 1993 that all of those Palestinians who committed crimes against Israel and Israelis would be set free with the return of Arafat. But they were not. The Palestinians have never forgotten this issue and have brought it to the table constantly over the past 20 years.
In the past two years I personally delivered the request from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to release the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners (the ones now being released). Abbas even sent me the full list names and ID numbers to give to Netanyahu.
According to Abbas, Olmert had promised to release them, too, but they were not released. From the Palestinian perspective this has remained as one of the unfulfilled promises of Oslo that are responsible for the demise of the peace process.
I know it is hard. I have spent countless nights awake thinking about the release of murderers. During the five years and four months that Gilad Schalit was in captivity in Gaza I spent hundreds of hours in conversations with Hamas people pleading for his freedom. They demanded the release of hundreds of murderers in exchange for one soldier.
I, like every other Israeli, have unfortunately known too many Israelis who have been killed by Palestinians. I got engaged in the attempts to bring Schalit home because one of my wife’s first cousins was abducted and killed by Hamas. I tried to help find him when he disappeared, and failed.
I was at his funeral in Jerusalem standing over his grave, crying with the rest of his family. On the day that the Schalit deal and my role in it became public knowledge, his widow called me. For almost one hour she yelled at me, she cried, I also cried with her. Four of the six people responsible for the murder of her husband, my wife’s cousin, and the father of her children went free in that prisoner exchange.
There are no words to console her or soothe the pain of those who this week saw the murderers of their loved ones go free.
This is what is possible to say, and it is no way meant to be an excuse or support for the prisoner release under these circumstances. For me, I say to myself – murderers were set free, but Gilad Schalit came home alive and there was no other way of bringing him home after five years and four months in confinement.
For the others released two months ago, this week, and the two future releases: it is not being done for negotiations.
It is not a promise to the Palestinians. It is a payment to the United States which put pressure on Israel to do it.
It is because the United States has made the promise that Iran will not have nuclear weapons. It is because we trust that the United States will stand by its promise. It is also a sign that there must be progress in the negotiations.
The Israeli agreement to release the prisoners was divided into four waves so that if the negotiations did break down because of unreasonable Palestinian positions, Israel would not be obligated to release those who were not yet released.
We can also take partial consolation in that all of the prisoners released have spent between 17-28 years in prison.
They had their freedom denied from them while their children grew, while their grandchildren were born. They did not celebrate for many years in family events or holidays. They have been locked away paying for the crimes that they committed.
Israel does not have the death penalty.
Those who were convicted of murder were granted life by our justice system. There are those who think that this is unjust and a life should be paid for with a life. I do not share that view. I do not believe that the state has the right to take a life.
I have met released murderers face to face, both here and in other conflict zones. In almost all cases, I heard them say that they live with the faces of those they killed every single day of their life.
Many cannot say that they are sorry and they justify their actions for political purposes. But I know, I saw and I witnessed tortured souls – people who cannot forget that they took an innocent life. This is particularly the case for those who killed civilians.
There is no solace in these words, or in any words. We live in a very complex reality and it is often very difficult to comprehend. The best we can do is to hope that one day soon we will reach real peace and all of the killing will stop and no one will need to feel this pain again.
Gershon Baskin is the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His books Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.