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When Terrorists Become Bargaining Chips, They Become Freedom Fighters

In 1985, Israel agreed to the largest prisoner swap it had ever conducted: 1,150 Palestinians for three Israelis. Many of these Palestinians went on to form the leadership of the First Intifada, and almost half were rearrested for terrorist activity. Kozo Okamoto, who killed 26 people in the Lod Airport Massacre, was among those freed. As was Sheik Ahmad Yassin who, ironically, went on to found Hamas—the group responsible for the 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit.

Israel’s handling handling of hostage and prisoner exchanges is unlike any other nation’s; over thirty such exchanges have occurred in the past 60 years. In the aftermath of the Sinai War of 1956, Israel returned 5,500 Egyptian soldiers for four IDF Prisoners. The numbers after the wars of 1967 and 1973 show equal disproportion. In 1979, it released 76 members of the P.L.O. in exchange for one hostage.

Prisoner deals are Pyrrhic victories, with short-term political gains but devastating long-term consequences. In 2004, Israel released 435 prisoners for Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan claimed that 231 Israelis were later killed by those freed in the Tennenbaum exchange. Terrorists responsible for the deaths of 569 Israeli civilians were handed back in the Gilad Shalit deal. Against standing armies and guerrilla organizations, Israel has certainly agreed to negotiate with terrorists.

The latest news of prisoner release came as a surprise. On the eve of restarted peace-talks, Israel announced the release of 104 pre-Oslo Accords prisoners. Among the first 26 to be released was Al-Haaj Othman Amar Mustafa, a Palestinian serving a life sentence for the 1991 killing of U.S. Marine Frederick Steven Rosenfeld. He was welcomed back as a hero.

Every new round of prisoner releases rekindles a public debate about their efficacy and ethics. Does it set a dangerous incentive to kill and capture more Israelis? Does it honor the Jewish teaching of “save one life, save all of humanity”? Is it better to sacrifice one soldier for the protection of many? The same tropes are rehashed. The families of those killed in terrorist attacks dissent loudly. Ex-Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs take sides. Alan Dershowitz writes more op-eds.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s August release does have precedent. Starting with the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel freed 2,000 prisoners in the first year and 1,000 every subsequent year. Many see his move as a sign of goodwill to the Palestinians on the eve of peace talks. Others see it as an insignificant bow to political pressure, citing the concurrent announcement of the building of 900 new settlement units as a counter-move to placate the Israeli right wing.

However, entirely missing from this debate is the underlying message these prison releases send about the crimes Palestinians are serving time for.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of Israel’s over 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, sitting in over seventeen specially built prisons, are doing time for minor offenses; most had rocks, not blood, on their hands. Section 212 of Military Order 1651 states that a child above the age of fourteen can face a maximum penalty of between ten and twenty years of prison time for stone throwing or “political acts of subversion” against IDF forces. It would be understandable, if not just, to release those prisoners as part of peace talks or exchanges. They might be thugs, but they aren’t terrorists.

However, the release of men such as Al-Haaj Othman Amar Mustafa, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and Kozo Okamoto, sends a completely different message. These men have killed scores of innocent civilians, not IDF soldiers, during combat operations. They are cold-blooded killers who, if tried in a civilian and not in a military court, would surely face hundreds of years in prison with absolutely no chance of parole. And yet, these men are regularly freed as part of political exchanges.

When actual terrorists become political bargaining chips, they become freedom fighters, not objective evildoers. When barbarous murderers are released in exchange for one prisoner—or none, in this latest case—the message sent to the Palestinians is that those sitting in jail are indeed not terrorists but asra, what Palestinians call “prisoners of war.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes nothing more than a protracted war; all Israeli civilians become targets, all Palestinians become bargaining chips.

In this new moral paradigm established by scores of Israeli leaders, Palestinians gunning down innocent people isn’t a manifestly evil action, but a nationalistic deed with temporary consequences. Crudely put: simply kill people, sit in jail waiting for your release, and return home liberated as a freedom-fighting hero (and in most cases, receive a substantial pension by Palestinian authorities).

Israel must never return murderers. Return jingoistic teenagers hauled off to jail for minor offenses of IDF policy? Certainly. But if Israeli politicians believe that the conflict is more than a squabble over land, and that crimes committed by Palestinians against Israeli civilians are objectively wrong, they must let killers die in prison. Releasing them transforms the moral landscape of the conflict and their crimes.