Israel aims to contribute to successful peace talks with the release of Palestinian prisoners. Members of the victims' families have responded with anger and grief. New settlements have also drawn criticism.
Around 50 demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the release of Palestinian prisoners. "Freeing terrorists means the death of a child in Israel," they chanted. One protest poster reads: "Are we crazy to release killers?"
Debate has been raging in Israel for weeks over planned release of 104 Palestinians imprisoned for terrorist activities. "There are moments when a prime minster has to make some difficult decisions for the good of the nation," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in defense of his decision.
The release was one of the demands of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah in order for them to sit down at the table with Israel negotiators. The move should pave the way for direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis, planned for Wednesday (14.08.2013) in Jerusalem.
Names of prisoners released
For many members of victims' families, the pain and sorrow are still too deep to accept amnesty. Ayelet Taman, who has come to Tel Aviv to demonstrate, is one such person. Her brother-in-law Mosche was kidnapped at 18 in 1984, and then killed. The four offenders are on the list of prisoners to be released over the next nine months.
"I'm not prepared to accept the decision of our government," Taman said. "Why do we have to release all these murderers to be able to sit at the table with Mahmud Abbas and negotiate peace?"
Oded Karmani holds the picture of his brother Ronen in one hand, and newspaper clippings reporting on his fate in the other. Ronen Karmani was kidnapped by Palestinians as a teenager, together with a friend, and later murdered. “In no other country would you release a murderer; the government is bending under pressure of the international community,” Karmani said.
On Sunday (11.08.2013), the responsible Israeli ministerial committee published a list of the first 26 Palestinian prisoners to be released from prison as part of the new Middle East talks. Some have been in prison for more than two decades - all of them for murder or abetting terrorist attacks.
After the list was published, members of the victims' families had 48 hours to appeal to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Complaints lodged by the families have since been rejected by the judges, as expected.
Others in Israel agree with the move to release the Palestinian prisoners, but they are a minority. One of them is Robi Damelin, an Israeli who grew up in South Africa. She can relate to the families of the victims who are against their release: she lost her son David in 2002 during an attack. A Palestinian sniper shot the 28-year-old reservist.
"I can understand the anger and fear very well," Damelin said. "But we need to find a way out of this vicious cycle."
Robi Damelin is the spokeswoman of Parents Circle, an organization in which members of Israeli and Palestinian victims seek reconciliation and understanding. She supports the release of Palestinian prisoners who have served long terms. "That is the price that we have to pay," said the 68-year-old. "And those against this view have to realize that somehow. If we don't make gestures like the release of prisoners, there won't be any talks or any progress."
For their part, the Palestinians have to swallow a bitter pill in return for the Israeli government's release of long-term prisoners. Just hours before the announced release, the Israeli government made public the construction of more than 1,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and annexed East Jerusalem. The already skeptical Palestinian population views this move as proof that the Israeli side is not serious about the negotiations.
For now, many Palestinians are awaiting the release of the 26 prisoners. In Jerusalem's old city, sisters Muna and Amal Khalaf had hoped to see their brother Ahmad. "I've been waiting here for more than 20 years," said older sister Muna, gazing at a photo of her 38-year-old brother. But she was disappointed to learn that he is not among the first to be released.
As a 16-year-old teenager, Ahmad Khalaf set homes and cars on fire, seriously injuring a Jewish settler. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison by an Israeli court. In the spring of 2014, he will have served out his sentence. "For our mother, that will come too late," said Muna Khalaf. "She passed away two months ago."
Nevertheless, Muna Khalaf is determined to look forward. "We need to start something new," she said. "It's important that the prisoners are released so that there is a chance of reconciliation between us and the Israelis."