Blood on Our Hands
AT THIS moment, negotiations on a prisoner exchange are in full swing.
The term "negotiations" is really inappropriate. "Haggling" seems more
fitting. One could also use an uglier expression: "trafficking in human
The planned deal concerns living people. They are being treated like
goods, for which the officials of the two sides are bargaining, as if
they were a piece of land or a load of fruit.
In their own eyes, and in the eyes of their spouses, parents and
children, they are not goods. They are life itself.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, "Gush
Shalom" publicly called on the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to free
all the Palestinian prisoners.
The logic was simple: they are in reality prisoners-of-war. They did
what they did in the service of their people, exactly like our own
soldiers. The people who sent them were the chiefs of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO) with whom we have just signed a
far-reaching agreement. Is there any sense in signing an agreement with
the commanders, while their subordinates continue to languish in our jails?
When one makes peace, prisoners-of-war are expected to be released. In
our case, this would not only be a sign of humanity, but also of wisdom.
These prisoners come from all the towns and villages. Sending them home
would release an outburst of joy all over the occupied Palestinian
territories. There is hardly a Palestinian family that does not have a
relative in prison.
If the agreement is not to remain just a piece of paper, we said, but be
imbued with content and spirit - there is no wiser act than this.
Unfortunately, Rabin did not listen to us. He had many positive traits,
but he was a rather closed person, devoid of imagination. He was himself
a prisoner of narrow "security" concepts. For him, the prisoners were
goods to be traded for something. True, before the founding of Israel he
himself had been held in detention by the British for some time, but,
like many others, he was incapable of applying the lessons of his own
experience to the Palestinians.
We considered this a fateful matter as far as the peace efforts were
concerned. Together with the unforgettable Faisal Husseini, the adored
leader of the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, we organized a
demonstration opposite the Jneid prison in Nablus. It was the largest
joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstration ever. More than ten thousand
people took part.
In vain. The prisoners were not released.
FOURTEEN YEARS later, nothing has changed. Prisoners have been released
after completing their sentence, others have taken their place. Every
night, Israeli soldiers capture a dozen or so new "wanted" Palestinians.
At any one time, there are some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, male and
female, from minors to old people.
All our governments have treated them as goods. And goods are not given
away for nothing. Goods have a price. Many times it was proposed to
release some prisoners as a "gesture" to Mahmoud Abbas, in order to
strengthen him vis-à-vis Hamas. All these suggestions were rejected by
Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Now, the security services oppose the prisoner exchange deal for the
release of the soldier Gilad Shalit. And not because the price - 1400 in
exchange for 1 - is exorbitant. On the contrary, for many Israelis it
seems quite natural that one Israeli soldier is worth 1400 "terrorists".
But the security services raise much weightier arguments: if prisoners
are released for a "kidnapped" soldier, it will encourage the
"terrorists" to capture more soldiers.
At least some of the released prisoners will return to their
organizations and activities, and that will result in more bloodshed.
Israeli soldiers will be obliged to risk their lives in order to arrest
And there is something else lurking in the background: some of the
families of Israelis killed in attacks, who are organized in a very
vociferous lobby connected with the extreme right, will raise hell. How
could this pitiful government, devoid of any public standing, withstand
FOR EACH of these arguments, there is a counter-argument.
Not releasing the prisoners leaves the "terrorists" with a permanent
motivation to "kidnap" soldiers. After all, nothing else seems to
convince us to release prisoners. In these circumstances, such actions
will always enjoy huge popularity with the Palestinian public, which
includes many thousands of families that are waiting for the return of
their loved ones.
From a military point of view, there is another strong argument:
"Soldiers are not left in the field". This is held as a sacred maxim, a
mainstay of army morale. Every soldier must know that if he or she is
captured, the Israeli army will do everything, but everything, to get
him free. If this belief is undermined, will soldiers be as ready to
take risks in battle?
Furthermore, experience shows that a high proportion of released
Palestinian prisoners do not return to the cycle of violence. After
years in detention, all they want is to live in peace and devote their
time to their children. They exercise a moderating influence on their
And as for the thirst for revenge of the families of "terror victims" -
woe to a government that gives in to such emotions, which, of course,
exist on both sides.
THE POLITICAL argument goes both ways. There is pressure from the
"terror victims" - but there is even stronger pressure from the family
of the captured soldier.
In Judaism, there is a commandment called "ransom of prisoners". It
arose from the reality of a persecuted community dispersed across the
world. Every Jew is obliged to make any sacrifice and pay any price for
the release of another Jew from prison. If Turkish pirates captured a
Jew from England, the Jews of Istanbul paid the ransom for his release.
In today's Israel, this obligation still holds.
Public meetings and demonstrations are now being held for the release of
Gilad Shalit. The organizers do not say openly that the aim is to push
the government to accept the exchange deal. But, since there is no other
way to get him back alive, that is the message in practice.
One cannot envy the members of the government who find themselves in
this situation. Caught between two bad options, the natural tendency of
a politician like Olmert is not to decide at all and postpone
everything. But this is a third bad option, and one which carries a
heavy political price.
THE STRONGEST emotional argument voiced by the opponents of the deal is
that the Palestinians are demanding the release of prisoners with "blood
on their hands". In our society, the words "Jewish blood" - two words
beloved by the Right - are enough to silence even many on the Left.
But that is a stupid argument. It is also mendacious.
In the terminology of the Security Service, this definition applies not
only to a person who himself has taken part in an attack in which
Israelis were killed, but also to anyone who thought about the action,
gave the order, organized it and helped to carry it out - prepared the
weapons, conveyed the attacker to the scene, etc.
According to this definition, every soldier and officer of the Israeli
army has "blood on his hands", along with many politicians.
Somebody who has killed or wounded Israelis - is he different from us,
the Israeli soldiers past and present? When I was a soldier in the 1948
war, in which tens of thousands of civilians, fighters and soldiers on
both sided perished, I was a machine-gunner in the Samson's Foxes
commando unit. I fired thousands of bullets, if not tens of thousands.
It was mostly at night, and I could not see whether I hit anybody, and
if so - who. Do I have blood on my hands?
The official argument is that the prisoners are not soldiers, and
therefore they are not prisoners-of-war, but common criminals, murderers
and their accomplices.
That is not an original argument. All colonial regimes in history have
said the same. No foreign ruler, fighting an uprising of the oppressed
people, has ever recognized his enemy as legitimate fighters. The French
did not recognize the Algerian freedom fighters, the Americans do not
recognize the Iraqi and Afghan freedom fighters (they are all
terrorists, who can be tortured and held in abominable detention
centers), the South African apartheid regime treated Nelson Mandela and
his comrades as criminals, as the British did to Mahatma Gandhi and the
fighters of the Hebrew underground in Palestine. In Ireland, they hanged
the members of the Irish underground, who left behind moving songs
("Shoot me like an Irish soldier / Do not hang me like a dog; / For I
fought for Ireland's freedom / On that dark September morn…")
The fiction that freedom-fighters are common criminals is necessary for
the legitimation of a colonial regime, and makes it easier for a soldier
to shoot people. It is, of course, twisted. A common criminal acts in
his own interest. A freedom fighter or "terrorist", like most soldiers,
believes that he is serving his people or cause.
ONE PARADOX of the situation is that the Israeli government is
negotiating with people who themselves have served time in Israeli
prisons. When our leaders speak about the need to strengthen the
"moderate" Palestinian elements - they mainly mean these.
That is a feature of the Palestinian situation, which I doubt the
existence of in other occupied countries. People who have spent five,
ten and even twenty years in Israeli prisons, and who have every reason
in the world to hate our guts, are quite open to contact with Israelis.
Since I know some of them, and some of them have become close friends, I
have wondered many times about this.
At international conferences I have met Irish activists. After several
pints of Guinness they have told me that they know no greater joy in
life than killing Englishmen. I was reminded of the song of our poet
Nathan Alterman, who prayed to God "Give me hatred grey like a sack"
(for the Nazis). After hundreds of years of oppression, that's how they
Of course, my Palestinian friends hate the Israeli occupation. But they
do not hate all Israelis, just for being Israelis. In prison, most of
them have learned good Hebrew and listened to Israeli radio, read
Israeli newspapers and watched Israeli TV. They know that there are all
kinds of Israelis, just as there are all kinds of Palestinians. Israeli
democracy, which allows members of the Knesset to vilify their prime
minister, has made a deep impression on them. When the Israeli
government showed a readiness to negotiate with Palestinians, the best
partners were to be found among these ex-prisoners.
That is also true for the prisoners that are to be released now. If
Marwan Barghouti is released, he will be a natural partner in any peace
I shall be very happy when both he and Gilad Shalit are free.