Readers’ letters to the editor protesting a NY Times front-page article, March 30 (“Remaking a Life, After Years in an Israeli Prison”) include two that mention the crime for which the profiled subject, Muqdad Salah was convicted, the murder of an old man. A third letter is from the aunt of a 13-year old boy (Koby Mandell) who, along with a young companion, was bludgeoned to death on the West Bank, ten years ago.
These prisoner releases obviously, and reasonably, stick in the craw of many. As Daniel Reifman asks from Israel:
. . . Why do Palestinians insist on treating Mr. Salah, who admitted to killing an elderly Holocaust survivor, apparently as he slept, as a national hero?
In what sense does the murder of an innocent civilian constitute a legitimate act of protest?
Yet we should not forget that Palestinians have suffered far more casualties, including the deaths of more children than Israel, in this conflict. This is what was most shocking about Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in Dec. 2008/Jan. 2009 — inflicting more than 1400 deaths, with over half being unarmed civilians. Much of the brouhaha over the UN’s Goldstone Report, investigating the actions of both sides during that brief war, was on whether Israel had deliberately targeted non-combatants.
I would argue that Israel does not target non-combatants as a matter of policy, but it is often short-sighted or oblivious to the fatal consequences of many of its actions. Still,
Israel wrestles with this question. For example, the Shin Bet security service tried to learn from the killing of Hamas leader Salah Shehade in 2002, during the Second Intifada, which cost the lives of 14 others, including children. So, according to the acclaimed documentary film, “The Gatekeepers,” the Shin Bet used a less powerful explosive in a later operation, which allowed important Hamas leaders to escape.
A common Palestinian view may be reflected in the exhortation of a terrorist operative in a fictional (Israeli) film, “For My Father,” telling the suicide bombing recruit, as he fits the explosives to his body, to remember that he is “our air force.” So the combatants each fight this war with a morally complex dynamic: the Israelis do not wantonly target non-combatants, but kill many more of them than do Palestinian terrorists, who do attack Israelis at random, while succeeding in killing and injuring fewer. An old charge lodged against Israeli liberals and moderates is that they are “shooting and crying.” Palestinians are known to celebrate their attacks with sweets and to extol their fighters as heroes and martyrs. If we judge by intent, Israel comes out better; if we judge by lethal impact, however, not so much.
The lesson that should be learned is not that Israel should never use force to defend itself against people who intend harm, but — as concluded by all six of the living retired Shin Bet directors interviewed in “The Gatekeepers” — that the conflict cannot be resolved militarily. This is why the obvious (but politically bolder) choice that Prime Minister Netanyahu should have taken as a confidence-building measure when the latest round of negotiations began eight months ago, was not for a series of prisoner releases, but for a new freeze on construction in settlements.
Speculation is rife on frenetic efforts by the U.S. to keep the talks going, with a possible release of Jonathan Pollard in the mix. A partial freeze that allows unfettered construction in East Jerusalem and the completion of ongoing projects in West Bank settlements will be hard for the Palestinians to swallow. In the end, I’m in favor of any deal that gets the parties closer to a peace agreement, but what seems right to me is that prisoners who have committed heinous crimes not be released before the end of their sentences; and equally, that Israel not continue to build in places that need to be negotiated over.