In Israel, a charged debate over prisoner release

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks waged a charged debate Sunday over the planned release of militants this week in a deal to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years.

Several families have filed court appeals against the deal, though they are not expected to halt the swap in which Hamas militants will free Sgt. Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

On Sunday, Israeli prison buses began moving some of the prisoners from one penal installation in southern Israel to another in preparation for their release.

Among the prisoners to be released on Tuesday are militants involved in deadly bombings and other attacks targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers.

The internal Israeli debate, combined with the hero’s welcome awaiting the Palestinian prisoners upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reflect the sharply diverging narratives surrounding the swap. Israelis perceive the prisoners as cold-blooded terrorists, while in Palestinian society, prisoners are widely seen as resistance fighters.

On Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, a Palestinian prisoner flashes a V-sign on board an Israeli Prison Service bus transferring Palestinian prisoners who are to be exchanged for captured Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

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On Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, a Palestinian prisoner flashes a V-sign on ... more >

The domestic debate in Israel largely focuses on whether Israel is paying too heavy a price.

In Israel, Ron Kehrmann said he opposes the swap, which would free three militants involved in the 2003 suicide bombing that killed his 17-year-old daughter, Tal, and 16 others aboard a bus in the city of Haifa. Mr. Kehrmann said the release could result in more Israeli deaths.

“Is the blood of the next captured soldier or citizen less red than the blood of Gilad Schalit?” he asked.

But other bereaved relatives believe the price is worth paying to free the captive soldier. The fate of Sgt. Schalit, last seen in a 2009 video released by his captors, has preoccupied the nation since his capture in June 2006.

“To know your son is alive and not be able to hold him, this is the worst possible thing,” said Yosefa Goldstein, whose daughter Sari, 21, died in a 2002 bus bombing.

Many argue that militants who killed Israelis could return to armed activity and that releasing so many prisoners, including many implicated in some of the deadliest attacks in recent memory, bolsters groups such as Hamas at the expense of more moderate Palestinians. These considerations, this position argues, outweigh the life of one soldier.

But Israel‘s government decided, with the backing of the security services and what would appear to be a majority of Israelis, that no better deal could be achieved and that Sgt. Schalit’s return justified the price.

Among Palestinians, there is ongoing disagreement over whether the use of violence has been counterproductive in the quest for statehood. However, even those opposed to violence on tactical grounds argue that the prisoners sacrificed for a common cause and that Palestinians have the right to resist Israel‘s 44-year military occupation.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians were preparing a hero’s welcome for the returning prisoners. In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — largely sidelined during the swap negotiations between Israel‘s government and Hamas, his political rival — was to hold a reception for released prisoners Tuesday, said an aide, Saeb Erekat.

Kadura Fares, a member of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement and an activist on behalf of prisoners, said it’s unlikely the competing narratives can ever be reconciled.

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