I recall standing inside the military courtroom, amazed at the resolve and defiance I saw in the expression worn by the Palestinian defendant.
The small room was packed with military personnel: a judge, prosecutor, military police, and my unit – a squad of reservists entrusted with securing the perimeter. We were not doing a very good job of it, since we were more interested in the proceedings themselves. We were in an enclosed section, within a well guarded base, and after all, it wasn’t every day we got the chance to witness a terrorist on trial.
We were standing in our uniforms, armed. The man on trial was handcuffed and wearing a uniform of his own – brown prisoner clothes. Funnily enough, instead of listening to the legal discussion at hand, I was transfixed by the subject of this discussion. I was staring at him, when suddenly he looked in my direction, and for one brief moment, our eyes met. In his eyes, I saw calmness and acceptance; in my gut I felt fear and panic. Despite the obvious predicament he was in – I was the one in peril.
After it was all finished, and as we were leaving the courtroom, I overheard an aide of the prosecutor saying to his boss: “another bargaining chip for the system”. Later I learned that the Palestinian on trial had been arrested for throwing stones during a riot on the outskirts of Ramallah. He was sentenced to five years of imprisonment.
Israeli jails are brimming with Palestinian prisoners. Some prisoners, like in this case, are imprisoned for light offenses, while others are termed as being “with blood on their hands”, meaning they were found to be directly or indirectly responsible for the death of Israelis. As a nation that has experienced war and terrorist attacks by the score, Israel finds it extremely hard to come to terms with releasing this latter type of prisoners. Imprisonment is meant to provide a minimum amount of justice to the victims. Canceling this measure of punishment is presenting them with a cruel world indeed.
This morning, the Israeli government convened to approve the release of one hundred and four Palestinian prisoners, thus fulfilling Israel’s part of the deal to renew the peace process. This is not the first time Israel has decided to release Palestinian prisoners, and just like in the previous cases, the Israeli public as a whole is finding it difficult to come to terms with the decision. It is also not the first time a so-called red line is being crossed in such a deal. Israel now releases Palestinians of every age, and to every geographic location. In this deal Israel is breaking the red line of not releasing prisoners with Israeli citizenship.
Ultimately, there is no way the feelings of a family who have lost a loved one at the hands of one of the prisoners to be released can be assuaged. Yet, also ultimately, there is no way Netanyahu could and should have made a different decision. We are running a marathon and not a one-hundred meter race. On this long run, getting the peace process back on track is of the utmost importance for Israel’s international and regional stance. The pain suffered by the families of the victims should be respected, but Israelis should not limit their reasoning to the unpleasant images of prisoners claiming victory. With a third Intifada looming in the background, and growing diplomatic isolation, Netanyahu made a difficult decision in an impossible reality.