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Op-Ed: Abbas and the 120 "Old Men"

Abbas demands the release of 120 "Old Prisoners" to start negotiations. Who are they?
Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 7:48 PM


Justice Minister Tzipi Livni admits that "these are serious cases," but didn't reject the demand off the bat.  This news has reopened the wounds of the victims' families.

October 1984.  Students Revital Seri and Ron Levi were hiking along a trail south of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.  Unfortunately for them, also present was Issa Abd Rabo of Dheisha (near Bethlehem), who had come to the outskirts of the capital to find Jews to kill.  He came across them, bound them at gunpoint, covered their heads, and shot them to death.

I didn’t know the two, but I was one of those organizing the searches when they were reported missing.  The story of their lives and death touched me so much that I named my daughter who was born that week Revital, after Revital Seri (while adding the name Tichye—may she live”in accordance with instructions from Rabbi Eliyahu).

Recently, the Palestinian rais sent his senior representative Abd a-Rahim to the family home of the murderer, who was given two life sentences for his crimes.  And here is what official Palestinian news agency Wafa had to report about the visit in Arabic:

“Abd a-Rahim spoke with Issa’s mother, conveying greetings from President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.  He expressed appreciation and admiration of her steadfastness and sacrifice as she has waited and held on over the course of thirty years.  He further said: The chains of the prisoners will be removed by virtue of the willpower of the heroes and their mothers.… The best of the Palestinian people are in the prisons.”

But the rais doesn’t just talk.  He also acts.  Mahmoud Abbas is demanding the release of the students’murderer as part of his demand for the release of 120 “long-time prisoners,”which he’s made a precondition for renewing negotiations with Israel.

When Justice Minister Tzipi Livni received Abbas’demand, rather than tell him to drop dead, she issued instructions to send her the terrorists’files—quite the encouraging signal from the Palestinians’perspective, given that she would be the first one to sign on pardons for them.

Livni has a conflict of interests.  On one hand, she has to maintain the rule of law and the independence of the law enforcement system.  On the other hand, she is in charge of political negotiations: that was the very reason she joined the coalition.

She did, to be sure, note that these are “serious cases.” We’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile, the top Israeli advocate for letting the terrorists out of jail is none other than Shimon Peres.  In an interview on Channel 1, when Geula Ben Even brought up Abbas’demands, His Excellency adopted his serious, deliberate expression, as if surprised by the question (a recurring schtick of his for decades already), and said in a deep voice: “I would consider the matter seriously.  Very seriously.”

Fatal Hitchhike

Who are these 120 prisoners?  The Palestinian Authority talks about long-time prisoners, old people, the sort who are so advanced in age that they’re utterly harmless.  We requested and searched for their details for a long time—but to no avail.  All the officials to whom we turned somehow found themselves unable to be of any help.

And then we got our hands on the list.

Here are details about just a few of those utterly harmless prisoners:

Joshua Jason Friedberg made aliya from Montreal.  I was his commander in an IDF program for volunteers from the Diaspora.  Since he won honors for being the best recruit in his class, I got to know him personally: an admirable young man, in excellent physical shape, from a very Zionist family.…

Yousef Shamashaneh Ju’ad and his friends already had experience abducting Israelis.  They had managed to abduct seventeen-year-olds Lior Tubol and Ronen Karmani from Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem by disguising themselves as Jews and offering them a ride.  After murdering the youths they threw their corpses into the wadi between Ramot and Beit Chanina.  The bodies were found only after several days of searches.

In March 1993, those same murderers offered a ride to Joshua.  They killed him and discarded his corpse near Abu Gosh, on the side of the road.

Thousands of Jerusalemites who didn’t know him attended his funeral.  The procession began at Mechon Meir, where he had studied prior to his army service.

I met his father and mother by their son’s grave on Memorial Day this year, as always.  They were shocked to learn that their son’s murderers were liable to be released along with the rest of the 120.

Fire Trap

Behind the following laconic lines, taken from a legal document, hides a terrible tragedy that burned its way into the national consciousness:

“Abu Harabish Salam Saliman Mahmoud and Adam Ibrahim Juma’a threw Molotov cocktails at a passenger bus and caused the death of a mother, her three children, and a soldier who tried to save them.”

It was an Egged bus, traveling along the Jordan Valley road from Beit She’an to Jerusalem.  Near Jericho, the murderers threw Molotov cocktails at the bus, and it quickly caught fire.  Seated in the back seat of the bus was the Weiss family: the father, the mother, and their three infant children.  The bus driver opened the doors and shouted to the passengers to quickly ge out of the burning bus.  Almost all did—but left inside were Rachel Weiss and the three infants.

Another one of the passengers was David Delarosa.  David, who already was outside the bus, saw the Weiss family trapped inside and re-entered the burning vehicle to save them.  He tried to pull out Rachel and her children, but to no avail.  David received serious burns and began to choke, and he was forced to leave the bus.

I was at his bedside in the hospital.  David was lucid; he also was able to speak.  We all thought he would make it.  But the internal burns to his lungs, caused by the smoke in the bus, put an end to him.

Geula Delarosa was surprised when I came to discuss how to prevent her son’s murderers from being released.  As in the homes of many other bereaved families, much of the family home is dedicated to the memory of the lost son: pictures, certificates, insignia, memorabilia.  Geula, a fierce woman and quick writer, wrote a scathing letter to the prime minister and president on the spot, and gave it to me to pass on.

Jailed but Not Out

The death of Border Policeman Nissim Toledano touched a cord with Israelis, not least due to its aftermath.

In December 1992, Toledano was abducted from Lod by a Hamas cell when he was walking to early morning prayer services at the synagogue by his home before going on duty.  At first Hamas demanded the release of its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in exchange for Toledano, but in the end the policeman was murdered.  His body was discovered bound and stabbed.

I made the acquaintance of his mother, Odette Toledano, when in the middle of the shiva period, she and her remaining children came out as Almagor representatives to back up Rabin’s decision to expel 415 Hamas members to Lebanon as a reaction to the murder.  Then, that winter, she sat with us for two months in a tent that we set up across from one that had been erected by Israeli Arabs to pressure Rabin into bringing the Hamas members back from Lebanon before the set time.

When the cell was caught, its members turned out to be residents of various parts of Jerusalem: Anata, Sur Baher, Shuafat.  Most of these terrorists, who were sentenced to three life sentences and are today in their forties, have already been free for some time due to the Schalit Deal.

One of them, Issa Moussa Issa Mahmoud, remained in prison and was not released in the deal, because in addition to the Toledano murder he serious injured a soldier whom he ran over, participated in firing at a police car, and seriously injured a police office who was sitting in it.  And he didn’t stop there: during his time in prison, he assembled a terrorist cell whose goal was to abduct soldiers and commit other terrorist attacks.

He too is on the list of 120 prisoners, even though he is a Hamas member.  When it comes to something like this, Hamas and Fatah can get along.  Everyone is a martyr.  Everyone is a shahid.

Ambush on the Way to Campus

Professor Menachem Stern made aliya from Poland at age thirteen.  He studied at the Hebrew University, where he received his degree in Jewish history and world history.  After completing a third degree at Oxford, he returned and became one of the most senior lecturers and scholars in Jerusalem, a member of Education Ministry curriculum committees, the president of the Israel Historical Society, the director of the Shazar Center, and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences.

While walking from home to the Givat Ram university campus in June 1989, in the forested area by the Israel Museum, Professor Stern was ambushed by two Arabs.  One held him.  The other stabbed him repeatedly until the sixty-four-year-old was bleeding to death.

The professor’s body was found by schoolchildren passing by.  Three years later, Salah Halil Ahmed Ibrahim was caught and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Today, if Tzipi Livni adopts Shimon Peres’recommendation, he also will be freed as a member of Abbas’wish list.

Ears

Toward the end of the December 1993, David Dadi, along with his aquaintance Chaim Weitzman, was stabbed to death in the former’s apartment in Ramla.  Arab workers from Gaza working in a neighboring apartment had entered the home and succeeded in overpowering them.  David was known for his voice, and loved to sing.  He had a special joie de vivre and loved to laugh and to smile.  He also loved to study Torah.

After the murder, the killers desecrated the bodies, cutting off their ears to show friends when boasting of their accomplishment.

They too are already in their forties.  They too appear in the list of “old”prisoners whose release is demanded.

Pitchforks and Knives

Three Israeli Arabs from Wadi Ara, members of the Agrebya clan, infiltrated the camping area of a firing range in the southern Carmel Mountains and used pitchforks to murder three IDF trainees as they slept.  The event became known as the Night of Pitchforks.

The murderers became popular Palestinian heroes—and all three are on the way to freedom.  Peres already has reduced their sentences in accordance with a recommendation by the Ministry of Justice and pressure exerted by an Arab Knesset members from their area.

But that isn’t enough for Abbas.  He wants them released now.

Years after the Night of the Pitchforks, another member of that clan murdered Sharon Steinmetz and her friend Yechiel Shai Finster in the eastern Carmel.  Sharon had recently finished her national service at Hadassah; Yechiel, a graduate of Yeshivat Or Etzyon, had just completed his military service in the Armored Corps.  The two had met in Rabbi Eiyahu Zini’s beit midrash while studying at the Technion.

The two were on a hike in Megiddo Forest.  While they were stopped by Keini Stream, that other member of the Agrebya clan, from the nearby village of Mushayrifa, came over and started a friendly conversation with them, all the while keeping his long knife hidden from view.  As soon as he had the hikers distracted, he drew his weapon.  First he attacked Yechiel, knowing that he would have an easier time of the young woman once Yechiel were knocked off.  She fought for her life, but he succeeded in killing her too.  Their bodies were found the next day in the stream.

This case of the couple that had innocently gone on a hike on Jewish land resulted in a public uproar, both because it happened in the middle of pre-1967 Israel and because the murderer was an Arab Israeli.

The Steinmetz family has been having a difficult time of late.  The father, Aryeh, an engineer at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, worriedly told me that he had seen an interview with a representative of the Ministry of Justice and defense attorney Ben Natan in which they told how terrorists are freed through the efforts of the Ministry of Justice and the president’s pardon.

Israel did away with capital punishment, and now even life imprisonment is no more, whether due to abductions, goodwill gestures to buy political negotiations, or individually tailored “rehabilitation”schemes.

The murder victims can’t be rehabilitated.  Neither can the families that see the murderers living freely.

Expenditure and Risk Squandered for Nought

B. is a retired ISA man.  He describes his deep frustration at hearing that these terrorists are liable to be freed:

“Capturing a terrorist is a long, hard process.  The first step is to invest in intelligence and look for a lead.  Then you have to verify the information and get proof from other sources.  You have to gather more intelligence: to whom is he connected, who gives him instructions, whom does he give instructions, where does he live, what’s his lifestyle, where does he move around, with whom does he move around, who are his family members.  You have to observe him and learn his daily routine.

“In the next stage, you have to wait for an opportune time to catch him.

“At every stage we are literally risking our lives.  I personally know four cases of people who were killed on the job.

“When it’s time for the capture, the main effort goes from the ISA to the IDF.  Here, soldiers risk their lives and often find themselves in crossfires with the terrorist and those around him.

“And when the terrorist is caught, that’s not the end of the story.  A new process begins: interrogating him, figuring out how to get him to confirm everything that’s already known about him and divulge the details of everything that’s not know about him.

“Then you bring in the police.  They, not the ISA, put together all the information to get a conviction.  After that there’s the indictment.  The trial.  The verdict.

“Usually, when the detainee is put on trial, the Shin Bet investigator is called up to testify.  The terrorists’attorneys try to punch holes in his testimony, and that’s another challenge, and not always an easy one.  In the end the murderer goes to jail, and you don’t know whether he’ll serve his whole sentence or there will be a political decision to release him.

“Yes, it’s really frustrating.  I don’t want to say it takes the wind out of our sails, but it’s frustrating, because most of them go back to terrorism.  And then you have to chase after them and start again from the beginning.”

There are things that army officers and ISA agents can’t or aren’t allowed to do.  These things fall to civil society, and they can’t be the sole province of bereaved families and victims.

There is no doubt that the relative calm and scarcity of terrorist attacks in recent years resulted from capturing terrorist operatives and putting them behind bars.  There also is no doubt that their release would result in future waves of terrorism.  It’s already happened more than once.  Measured in human life or measured in money, it is much cheaper to ensure that the terrorists stay in jail  than to go through the trouble and risks of capturing them again.

First published in the Hebrew newspaper, Makor Rishon (print edition)

Translated from Hebrew by David B. Greenberg