As part of the US effort to restore utterly futile “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in phases, with the first 26 to be freed on 13 August.
According to Addameer, the Palestinian prisoners rights group, most of those slated for release have served more than 25 years in Israeli prisons and are near the end of their sentences.
In many cases, they are the same prisoners Israel has agreed to release in previous agreements, before reneging on those commitments.
Playing up Israeli anguish
Israeli media and politicians have been doing their utmost to milk this decision for propaganda purposes, highlighting how unspeakably evil the Palestinians are and what a high and terrible price this is for Israelis.
Isabel Kershner faithfully picks up on this in a New York Times article on the topic today:
Israeli newspapers highlighted the crimes committed by the prisoners, most of whom have served 20 years or more in prison for deadly attacks against Israelis. The list of prisoners, which was released after midnight, included one of the killers of Isaac Rotenberg, a Holocaust survivor who was 67 at the time of his death in 1994, and the man who killed an 84-year-old Israeli, Avraham Kinstler, with blows from an ax.
Kershner ends her article with this heartbreaking pen portrait of Israeli relatives protesting outside the High Court which was hearing petitions against the releases:
One of them was Gila Molcho, the sister of Ian Feinberg, an Israeli lawyer who was bludgeoned to death by a Palestinian man wielding an ax in Gaza in 1993 while he was working on a project there. Ms. Molcho held a framed portrait of her brother, who was 30.
“Don’t let them come home as heroes,” she said of the prisoners to be released. “We will be left holding the pictures.” Weeping, she added, “They are terrorists, not soldiers.”
Palestinians have no such opportunity
Of course, it would be inhuman not to empathize with the anguish of any individual whose loved one has died violently.
But what’s most striking – and unremarked – about all this is that Israelis are, by and large, the only ones who have the opportunity to bewail the release of prisoners held for decades for killing their loved ones as some sort of great sacrifice and injustice.
Due to the systematic and near-total impunity that protects Israelis from consequences for killing or injuring Palestinians, there is just no parallel on the Palestinian side.
Going back to the creation of Israel, Palestinians have almost never seen the killers of their children receive appropriate punishment.
Notoriously, Colonel Issachar Shadmi, the brigade commander who ordered the massacre of 47 villagers at Kafr Qassem in 1956, was found guilty of a mere “administrative error” and fined one penny.
The examples of crimes where there has been a total absence of accountability and justice are simply too numerous to list, but they include the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of thousands of Palestinians during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and more recently more than 1,400 Palestinians killed in Gaza in 2008-2009 during Operation Cast Lead.
In one particularly horrific example, on 4-5 January 2009, Israeli occupation forces herded 100 civilians into the house of Wael al-Samouni, mostly women and children, and then deliberately shelled the house:
Twenty-one family members were killed and 19 injured in the shelling of just that house. Others had been killed, injured and left to die in nearby homes. Nine of the dead in Wa’el Samouni’s house were children, the youngest a baby of six months. The dead children included Wa’el Samouni’s 14-year-old daughter, Rizqa, and 12-year-old son, Faris.
In that case, as in countless others, Israel investigated itself and – surprise! – found no wrongdoing.
It would be wrong to say that Israeli soldiers never receive sentences for crimes against Palestinians. One year ago, for instance, an Israeli soldier was handed a sentence of 45 days in prison in a plea bargain on a lesser charge that meant he avoided trial for killing Raya Abu Hajaj, 64, and her daughter Majda, 37.
The mother and daughter were shot dead in the Gaza Strip in January 2009 as they were among civilians waving a white flag and trying to flee the Israeli onslaught.
Has B’Tselem not noticed that Israeli military police operate as if their job is to prevent, not promote, justice for Palestinian victims?
The impunity goes down to the individual level. Who can forget the “Israeli army officer who fired the entire magazine of his automatic rifle into” Iman al-Hams, a 13-year-old Palestinian girl in Gaza, “and then said he would have done the same even if she had been three years old.”
He was acquitted of any wrongdoing in her death by an Israeli court in 2005.
In these cases, the names of the accused are not even made public, another form of impunity for Israeli perpetrators.
Recently, I wrote about the case of Michael Gershkowitz an Israeli soldier, who received a risible two-month sentence for an horrific, unprovoked beating of a Palestinian worker that was caught on video.
And then there was the case of the Israeli police officer, Shahar Mizrahi, whose 30-month sentence in 2010, for shooting dead an unarmed Palestinian motorist caused consternation and outrage because it was considered too severe.
Israel’s top police officer and public security minister promised they would lead a campaign to convince Israel’s president to pardon Shahar.
It would be misleading to say that light sentences are the norm for Israelis who kill Palestinians. Any sentence at all is an exception.
Every Palestinian child knows this, including Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and paralyzed by an Israeli soldier in Jalazoun refugee camp last May.
“I’m not expecting anything to happen to [the soldier who shot me],” Atta recently said.
It bears mentioning that under the 1993 Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority and security forces have no powers to arrest or bring to justice Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians, a limitation that institutionalizes Israeli colonial “justice.” The Palestinian Authority can only arrest Palestinians.
Indeed, Israel’s main concern in negotiating the Oslo accords was creating a subservient regime that would effectively protect Israeli colonizers from any form of resistance by subjugated Palestinians, something the Palestinian Authority has done for years under the rubric of “fighting terrorism.”
Sentences reduced for Israelis convicted of killing Arabs
It would be remiss not to mention that sometimes Israeli civilians do go to prison for long periods for killing Palestinians.
There is the example of Ami Popper, who was serving multiple life sentences for murdering 7 Palestinian laborers in 1990.
But an Israeli serves a life sentence for killing Palestinians under very special conditions, as Ynet reported in May on the occasion of Popper’s latest wedding:
During his time in prison, Popper became religious, got married and had three kids. In 2007, while on prison leave, Popper was involved in a car accident which left his wife and one of his sons dead. He had been driving without a license.
He has since remarried and got divorced. Sunday’s wedding is his third marriage.
Popper’s sentence was reduced from seven life terms to 40 years in a series of pardons and commutations in 1999 by Israel’s then president Ezer Weizman.
That wasn’t all. As Agence France Presse reported on 3 February 1999:
Weizman’s order reduced by four years the 15-year sentence of Yoram Skolnik, who was jailed in 1993 for shooting a bound Palestinian man who had been captured after stabbing a Jewish settler in the West Bank.
Skolnik was originally jailed for life but Weizman already commuted the sentence to 15 years. Nehemia Michbaum, who killed a Palestinian man by throwing a hand grenade into a market in the Old City of Arab east Jerusalem in 1992, had his term reduced from 12 years to 10 years.
Also benefitting from Wednesday’s decision were two brothers, Yehodav and Eitan Kahalani, who were sentenced to 12 years in prison for the attempted murder of a Palestinian and had their terms cut to eight years.
The impunity is so pervasive and systematic – and endemic to what is a colonial reality in Palestine – that The New York Times doesn’t notice it. But when Israelis feel aggrieved, Kershner makes sure the world hears their weeping.