Commentary Magazine


Topic: prisoner releases

A Murderer’s Life and the Chances of Peace

The New York Times did a valuable public service today by profiling the life of Muqdad Salah. But the story, which demonstrated how unlikely peace between Israelis and the Palestinians is, wasn’t intended as an indictment of Palestinian society. Salah, 47, is, as the Times reported, doing his best to make up for lost time. You see, he lost 20 years of his life to a prison sentence in an Israeli jail from which he was liberated last year. To help ease his transition back to society, the resident of Burqa in the West Bank got a generous settlement from the Palestinian Authority, an honorary rank of brigadier general in the PA military, and praise from his neighbors and fellow Palestinians. In the seven months since he got out, he has married a much younger woman, remodeled a family home, and bought a business. He’s now the picture of a successful Palestinian, but he’s got a couple of problems. One is that the no-show salary of $1,800 a month he’s collecting from the PA (which gave him $100,000 at his release) isn’t enough to live the life of ease he craves. The other is that his travel is restricted. And oh, yes: some Israelis are really mad about the fact that a terrorist with blood on his hands like Salah is walking around free and enjoying life.

Although his profile would seem to be similar to the stories of those Americans who were wrongly convicted of murder but who are then released many years later because the courts have discovered that they are actually innocent, Salah wasn’t sprung from jail because of new DNA evidence or a witness who has recanted their testimony. There’s no doubt that it was he who took an iron bar and struck a 72-year-old Holocaust survivor over the head and murdered him in cold blood in 1993. The only change in the story is that while Salah claimed at his trial that he killed Israel Tenenbaum while he was sleeping, now he boasts that he had a grudge against the aged hotel security guard and killed him while he was awake.

Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren does a good job of amassing a lot of interesting detail about Salah’s life after prison and the way he and the dozens of other Palestinian terrorists who were released last year as part of the price Israel paid to get PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace negotiations. But she gives away the game when she attempts to strike a note of Olympian objectivity about the story when she notes that they have been “demonized as terrorists by Israelis and lionized as freedom fighters by Palestinians” but are just ordinary guys looking to “build apartments or start businesses, searching for wives and struggling to start families.” The problem here is not that these ordinary people are caught in the middle of a national struggle in which both sides distort the meaning of their actions. To the contrary, that most Palestinians consider a guy who brutally killed an elderly Jew is a hero worthy of a public subsidy (actually paid for by the PA’s foreign donors) tells us all we need to know about the chances for peace.

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The New York Times did a valuable public service today by profiling the life of Muqdad Salah. But the story, which demonstrated how unlikely peace between Israelis and the Palestinians is, wasn’t intended as an indictment of Palestinian society. Salah, 47, is, as the Times reported, doing his best to make up for lost time. You see, he lost 20 years of his life to a prison sentence in an Israeli jail from which he was liberated last year. To help ease his transition back to society, the resident of Burqa in the West Bank got a generous settlement from the Palestinian Authority, an honorary rank of brigadier general in the PA military, and praise from his neighbors and fellow Palestinians. In the seven months since he got out, he has married a much younger woman, remodeled a family home, and bought a business. He’s now the picture of a successful Palestinian, but he’s got a couple of problems. One is that the no-show salary of $1,800 a month he’s collecting from the PA (which gave him $100,000 at his release) isn’t enough to live the life of ease he craves. The other is that his travel is restricted. And oh, yes: some Israelis are really mad about the fact that a terrorist with blood on his hands like Salah is walking around free and enjoying life.

Although his profile would seem to be similar to the stories of those Americans who were wrongly convicted of murder but who are then released many years later because the courts have discovered that they are actually innocent, Salah wasn’t sprung from jail because of new DNA evidence or a witness who has recanted their testimony. There’s no doubt that it was he who took an iron bar and struck a 72-year-old Holocaust survivor over the head and murdered him in cold blood in 1993. The only change in the story is that while Salah claimed at his trial that he killed Israel Tenenbaum while he was sleeping, now he boasts that he had a grudge against the aged hotel security guard and killed him while he was awake.

Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren does a good job of amassing a lot of interesting detail about Salah’s life after prison and the way he and the dozens of other Palestinian terrorists who were released last year as part of the price Israel paid to get PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace negotiations. But she gives away the game when she attempts to strike a note of Olympian objectivity about the story when she notes that they have been “demonized as terrorists by Israelis and lionized as freedom fighters by Palestinians” but are just ordinary guys looking to “build apartments or start businesses, searching for wives and struggling to start families.” The problem here is not that these ordinary people are caught in the middle of a national struggle in which both sides distort the meaning of their actions. To the contrary, that most Palestinians consider a guy who brutally killed an elderly Jew is a hero worthy of a public subsidy (actually paid for by the PA’s foreign donors) tells us all we need to know about the chances for peace.

The story of the re-entry of Salah and his fellow killers into Palestinian society is one that is ripe for the usual sociological examination of the problems of ex-prisoners. Though they are showered with love, their lives are not a bed of roses. As one concerned Palestinian bureaucrat notes to Rudoren:

“We receive them as national heroes, we give them awards and medals, and then we leave them to face their problems alone,” said Munqeth Abu Atwan, who works at the ministry. “Can you tell a hero that you need a psychiatrist, you need to participate in a rehabilitation program?”

Alas, not. Pity poor Salah and his colleagues who are trapped in a Garry Cooper-style silence about their problems and can’t unwind to a therapist because of their stature as heroes.

The problem here isn’t so much the manner with which Rudoren reports the extraordinary spectacle of a government that is praised by the United States as a good partner for peace for Israel treating Salah as a hero. She interviews the family of his victim who still mourn the man who was born in Poland and evaded death at the hands of the Nazis only to be felled by an Arab who thought it was an appropriate protest to slaughter him. Tenenbaum’s daughter even says that she wouldn’t mind her father’s murderer going free—a stance that is rare among families of Israeli victims of terror and probably the reason why Rudoren chose Salah as her subject rather than some other killer—if it would lead to peace.

But the fallacy at the core of such thinking—which is the basis of the U.S. pressure on Israel to release even more such killers—is that the very fact that Palestinians treat men with Jewish blood on their hands as heroes illustrates that theirs is a culture which is not ready for peace with Israel. Only when such people are regarded as relics of an age of unreason rather than lionized by Palestinians will it be possible to imagine that they are prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and live in peace beside it. Until then, gestures such as Salah’s release only make it likely that Palestinian society will produce and honor more such killers, making peace a distant dream.

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Has Israel Made Sacrifices for Peace?

One of the clichés of commentary about the Middle East is the idea that it is time for the people of Israel to put their fears aside and make needed sacrifices for peace. That was the conceit of some of President Obama’s remarks when he visited Israel earlier in 2013 despite the fact that he couched this advice with some badly needed support for Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. But the president and those who have expressed this sentiment both before and after his remarks ignored the fact that Israel has made many such sacrifices and risks for the sake of peace. In the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has withdrawn from territory only to learn that land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians generally translate into an exchange of land for terror, not a cessation of the conflict. And yet no number of concessions has ever been seen as enough to remove the onus from Israel. It is in this context that the latest Israeli concessions must be understood.

The price that Israel was asked to pay to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table after years of their boycotting such talks was the release of terrorist murderers. The first batch of killers was set free in the fall. The second group is due to be freed today and it is expected that they, like the others before them, will be greeted as heroes by not just the Palestinian people but also the PA leadership, including its head Mahmoud Abbas. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the pain Israelis felt about this spectacle in November, he dismissed the concern while expressing no sympathy or understanding. As far as he was concerned, Palestinians who murder Jews in cold blood belong to a different category of terrorists than those who kill Americans and whom the U.S. would never consider releasing.

But to bring home just how egregious is a peace process that is built upon such a shaky edifice, here, courtesy of the Times of Israel, is a list of each one of the killers who will be released today, with their crimes and the identity of their victims. While no one should expect that this gesture, any more than the ones that preceded it, will be enough to silence those who call for Israelis to make such sacrifices, anyone who dares to make such a statement should be forced to read it and ponder how a Palestinian government that embraces such people and holds them up as role models in their official media could actually be a partner for peace.

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One of the clichés of commentary about the Middle East is the idea that it is time for the people of Israel to put their fears aside and make needed sacrifices for peace. That was the conceit of some of President Obama’s remarks when he visited Israel earlier in 2013 despite the fact that he couched this advice with some badly needed support for Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. But the president and those who have expressed this sentiment both before and after his remarks ignored the fact that Israel has made many such sacrifices and risks for the sake of peace. In the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel has withdrawn from territory only to learn that land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians generally translate into an exchange of land for terror, not a cessation of the conflict. And yet no number of concessions has ever been seen as enough to remove the onus from Israel. It is in this context that the latest Israeli concessions must be understood.

The price that Israel was asked to pay to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table after years of their boycotting such talks was the release of terrorist murderers. The first batch of killers was set free in the fall. The second group is due to be freed today and it is expected that they, like the others before them, will be greeted as heroes by not just the Palestinian people but also the PA leadership, including its head Mahmoud Abbas. When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the pain Israelis felt about this spectacle in November, he dismissed the concern while expressing no sympathy or understanding. As far as he was concerned, Palestinians who murder Jews in cold blood belong to a different category of terrorists than those who kill Americans and whom the U.S. would never consider releasing.

But to bring home just how egregious is a peace process that is built upon such a shaky edifice, here, courtesy of the Times of Israel, is a list of each one of the killers who will be released today, with their crimes and the identity of their victims. While no one should expect that this gesture, any more than the ones that preceded it, will be enough to silence those who call for Israelis to make such sacrifices, anyone who dares to make such a statement should be forced to read it and ponder how a Palestinian government that embraces such people and holds them up as role models in their official media could actually be a partner for peace.

Muhammad Yusuf Adnan Elafandi, arrested May 13, 1992, for stabbing two youths in Jerusalem. After the attack, his life was saved by an Israeli woman who defended him from a lynch mob. He was convicted of attempted murder. The woman who saved his life, Bella Freund, was the subject of a song by the hip hop band Hadag Nahash, in collaboration with rocker Barry Sakharof.

Farid Ahmed Shahade, arrested February 16, 1985, for the murder of Yosef Farhan, a suspected collaborator with Israel, in Jaffa.

Yakoub Muhammad Ouda Ramadan, Afana Mustafa Ahmad Muhammad, and Da’agna Nufal Mahmad Mahmoud, arrested April 1, 1993. The three were convicted of stabbing Sara Sharon, 37, to death in Holon on January 20, 1993.

Abu al Rub Mustafa Mahmoud Faisal and Kamil Awad Ali Ahmad, convicted of murder in the killing of 20-year-old IDF soldier Yoram Cohen in a shootout in the West Bank town of Jenin. Ali Ahmad was also convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering 15 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Faisal was convicted of manslaughter in four of those cases.

Damara Ibrahim Mustafa Bilal, arrested June 16, 1989, and convicted of murdering Steven Friedrich Rosenfeld, 48, a US-born immigrant to Israel. Damra and several others accosted Rosenfeld outside the West Bank settlement of Ariel, grabbed the knife he was carrying, and stabbed him to death with it. His body was found on the following day by a Palestinian shepherd.

Abu Mohsin Khaled Ibrahim Jamal, arrested April 10, 1991, and convicted of murder. Abu-Muhsan ambushed Shlomo Yahya, a 76-year-old gardener, in a public park in Moshav Kadima and stabbed him to death.

Tamimi Rushdi Muhammad Sa’id, convicted of kidnapping and murdering Hayim Mizrahi at a Palestinian-owned farm outside the settlement of Beit El, where Mizrahi lived, in 1993. Mizrahi had come to the farm to shop for eggs.

Silawi Khaled Kamel Osama, one of three Palestinians convicted in the murder of Motti Biton. Similar to Mizrahi, Biton was shot while he was shopping for groceries in a Palestinian-owned store. Afterwards his wife, who was in the car outside, fired at his attackers, who detonated a pipe bomb and fled. Biton was gravely wounded in the attack and died in an Israeli hospital three days later. Osama was also convicted of murder and manslaughter in the deaths of four Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the authorities.

Sawafta Sudqi Abdel Razeq Mouhlas, who stabbed Yosef Malka (Malkin) to death on December 29, 1990, during an attempt to rob his home in Haifa.

Barham Fawzi Mustafa Nasser, arrested December 20, 1993, for the murder of Morris (Moshe) Edri. Nasser, a former employee of Edri, 65, ambushed Edri and stabbed him in the back. After he was apprehended, he said he had carried out the murder to prove that he was worthy of joining Hamas.

Yusuf Ahmed Nu’aman Al-Shalvi, Mahmad Anis Aiman Jaradat, and Ahmad Yusuf Bilal Abu-Hassin, convicted of murdering multiple Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Mahmad Naim Shawmra Yunis, convicted of murder in the death of Yossef Hayun, a police sapper who was killed while attempting to disarm a bomb in Moshav Shekef in June 1993.

Mahmud Muhammad Salman, arrested May 6, 1994, and convicted in the murder of Shai Shoker. Salman strangled Shoker with a shoelace outside Tira on February 2, 1994.

Ahmed Ibrahim Jamal Abu-Jamal, convicted of attempted murder. Abu-Jamal was slated for release in 2016.

Mahmoud Ibrahim Abu-Ali Faiz, convicted of murdering Ronny Levy.

Zaki Rami Barbakh Jawdat, convicted of murdering Yosef Zandani.

Mustafa Ahmed Khaled Jumaa, convicted of aggravated assault, up for release in 2014.

Abu Hadir Muhammad Yassin Yassin, convicted of murder. Yassin shot Yigal Shahaf, 24, in the head while Shahaf and his wife were walking through Jerusalem’s Old City toward the Western Wall. Shahaf died in hospital on the following day. The murder weapon had been bought from a Jewish Israeli. Yassin was slated for release in 2016.

Muammar Ata Mahmoud Mahmoud and Salah Khalil Ahmad Ibrahim, convicted of murdering Menahem Stern, a history professor at Hebrew University. Stern, 64, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, was stabbed to death while walking to work at the university’s Givat Ram campus on June 22, 1989. A monument in his memory figures in a scene from the prize-winning Israeli film “Footnote.” Ibrahim was also convicted in the murder of Eli Amsalem. In addition, the two murdered a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israel, Hassin Zaid.

Taqtuq Lutfi Halma Ibrahim, arrested March 3, 1989, and convicted of murder in the shooting of IDF soldier Binyamin Meisner, on February 24, 1989, in Nablus.

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The High Price of American Friendship

As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

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As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

The comments from those who are defending what Netanyahu admitted had been one of the toughest decisions he has ever made illustrated the dilemma. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is often viewed as a hardliner on territorial issues, said the release had to continue because it had to be seen as part of a “long term strategic view” of his country’s position. That might be interpreted as a defense of the peace process. But it is more probably a reference to the fact that Israel’s geostrategic position is largely dependent on its ability to rely on its alliance with the United States.

The one possible benefit to Israel of the release is that it probably strengthens the position of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas vis-à-vis his Hamas rivals. Like the ransom Hamas extracted from Israel in order to gain the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit that boosted the Islamist group, it is supposed that this gesture will be seen as a triumph for Abbas and his Fatah Party. But since it is highly unlikely that Abbas would use this advantage to justify genuine progress toward peace, the utility of such tactical moves is limited.

More important for Israel is the fact that releasing the prisoners is really aimed at pacifying President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. There was little reason to believe reviving peace talks with the Palestinians made any sense when Washington put the screws to Netanyahu to reward Abbas for returning to the talks he abandoned five years ago. And the Palestinians’ continued intransigence and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes that even clearer three months into the stalled negotiations.

But Netanyahu has little choice but to give the Americans want they want. That is not because he is weak, but because only by letting the talks proceed without Israeli objections or hindrances will he have the ability to say no to demands for more concessions once it is obvious that they have failed. His first obligation is to protect his nation’s security, and he can best do that by standing strong on territory and borders, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue even if that means he must do the unthinkable and let murderers walk free.

The onus for this outrage ought to be on President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who have created this moral dilemma. It is they who should be explaining why they think it is all right to ask Jerusalem to do something that no American leader would dream of doing if the freedom of 9/11 murderers and accomplices were in question, as it is for those who perpetrated similar crimes against Israelis. Doing so encourages terrorism and rewards those who promote violence rather than encouraging peace.

As much as some Israelis like to talk about their independence from American influence, the strategic equation still requires their leaders to stay as close as possible to the president of the United States. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t stand up to Obama if the circumstances require it, but he must pick his fights carefully. That killers with blood on their hands be released and then feted by the Palestinians as heroes is a blot on Netanyahu’s record. But it should remind us that the real problem is the high price Obama has demanded for the maintenance of the U.S. alliance.

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