Israelis divided over prisoner deal to free soldier

RELATIVES of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks waged a charged debate yesterday 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 it is not expected to halt the swap in which Hamas militants will free Sgt Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. 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 tomorrow 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.

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. Kehrmann said the release could result in more Israeli deaths.

But other bereaved relatives believe the price is worth paying to free the captive soldier.

“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 like 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 Schalit’s return justified the price.

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