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Legal challenge

October 17, 2011

A number of Israelis whose relatives were killed in suicide bombings are petitioning Israel's Supreme Court, seeking to halt the deal to exchange Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Poster of Shalit
Not everyone is happy about Shalit's imminent releaseImage: dapd

The prisoners scheduled to be released include many Palestinians who helped plan or carry out some of the bloodiest suicide attacks of the past 10 years, during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada.

One of the groups bringing the legal challenge is the Almagor Terror Victims Association, headed by Meir Indor.

"We think this deal will bring more casualties. The Shalit family wins and the state loses. It's a victory for terror and Hamas," said Indor, accusing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of weakness.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had previously spoken out against such a prisoner swap, including giving personal assurances to some of these same families that the Palestinian prisoners convicted of involvement in suicide attacks would never be released.

Netanyahu sent a letter to the families on Monday saying that he wrote with a heavy heart and understood their feelings, as he was from a family of victims himself. His brother Yoni Netanyahu died leading the military action to free Israelis taken hostage at Entebbe in Uganda in the 1970s. Netanyahu said that hard decisions had been required to save the life of an Israeli soldier, who was a conscript doing his military service when he was taken captive.

Families opposed

However, the letter did not lessen opposition from the families. They marched from Israel's main military cemetery in Mount Herzl in Jerusalem to the Supreme Court, carrying white flags they said symbolized Israel giving in to terrorism. Yosi Tsur was among them. His son, 16-year-old Asaf, was killed in a bus bombing in Haifa eight years ago. The Palestinian who planned that bombing is one of those due to be released in the prisoner swap.

Hamas supporter
It's been a long road for both sidesImage: dapd

"It's obvious to everyone, to every citizen in this country that this release is not logical, that it will cause more tragedy for the state of Israel, that it will boost Hamas and lead to more suicide bombings, and more deaths and that we will all end up paying for this deal," he said.

Meir Indor, head of the Almagor victims group, agreed.

"We know from our experience that hundreds of people will pay with future terrorist attacks, and that Hamas will organize more kidnappings," he said.

According to Almagor, since 2004, 183 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks carried out by Palestinian prisoners after their release from Israeli jails under previous exchanges.

Among those marching were Lea and Meir Schievesjuuuder, who brought a separate legal action in Israel's Supreme Court. They lost five members of their family - including their parents - in a suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001. Sixteen people died in that bombing, eight of them children and teenagers.

Ahlam Tamimi, the Palestinian woman who picked the pizza parlor as the target, drove the bomber there, and sat with him for 15 minutes so that he wouldn't arouse suspicion, is also scheduled to be released in the Shalit prisoner swap. She has never expressed any remorse for her part in the attack.

Twenty-year-old Lea Schievesjuuder attacked the Shalit family, saying they had no interest in the people of Israel, only in preparing food and clothes for the return of their son.

"They don't care about our pain, so why should we care about their pain?" she asked. "We are living the pain of all the people of Israel, not the concerns of one person."

Shimshon Liebman, the head of the Campaign to Free Gilad Shalit described this as a "public argument between one pain and another pain."

"We need to be courageous to pay a price and to stay strong. We'll survive the appeals because at the end of the day the Jewish morals are stronger than anything else for the people of Israel," he said.

Palestinian and Israeli support

Not all the victims' families oppose the prisoner swap. Philip Leitel lost his 14-year-old daughter Abigail in the same bus bomb that killed Yosi Tsur's son Asaf. He said that with a heavy heart, he supported the swap and was very happy for the Shalit family.

Woman holding up photos of prisoners
It's not clear who stands to gain more from the exchangeImage: dapd

"We are thinking of the family, and their suffering, and the fact that he is alive. We really felt that it was necessary to do almost everything to allow him to have the opportunity to be reunited with his family. It's hard to know what price to pay, but we feel that it's more important to look after the living than those who have already died. I can imagine how happy I would be if my daughter could come home. She can't, but Gilad Shalit can."

Opinion polls published in Israeli newspapers show that support for the prisoner exchange is high. Seventy-nine percent of the Israeli public back the deal, despite the high price.

There is support across Palestinian society for the prisoner exchange. It has strengthened the standing of the Islamist group Hamas, which took Gilad Shalit captive and negotiated the deal. There are some 6,000 Palestinian security prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Before the Second Intifada there were less than 1,000.

Hamas leader Mahmoud A-Zahar, one of the chief negotiators of the Shalit prisoner swap called on Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners, leading to speculation that Hamas might be willing to offer a long-term ceasefire along the border with Gaza, in return for the release of more prisoners. The Hamas leadership has come under criticism from Hamas families whose prisoners were not released in this deal.

Author: Irris Makler, Jerusalem
Editor: Rob Mudge

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