On Monday night, more than 200 protesters demonstrated against the imminent release in front of the prime minister’s home in Yerushalayim, they then marched to the Kosel, while 15 continued on to stage a final protest in front of the East Yerushalayim home of one of the terrorists to be released. They held up signs saying “Jewish blood will not be forsaken!” and “We will not give up!”
As expected, the Supreme Court rejected the petition to halt the release, but for once, it was not by a unanimous vote. In what was seen as a largely symbolic gesture, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein voted against the release of five prisoners set to be returned to East Yerushalayim. The five still went free by a 2-1 vote because the other two judges on the panel, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis and Justice Zvi Zilberthal approved their release. In his dissent, Rubinstein expressed the hope that “maybe this time, if there is some morality on the other side or by some miracles, that low-life murderers will not be received [by the Palestinians] as saviors as has happened over and over.” That hope was in vain.
In addition to the five returned to East Yerushalayim, three were sent to Gaza, and the remaining 18 were greeted personally as returning heroes by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas when they arrived outside his Ramallah headquarters at 2:40 A.M. Tuesday.
The most notorious of the terrorists released was Kamil Awad Ali Ahmad. He was convicted of the murders of 16 Israelis. Yakoub Muhammad Ouda Ramadan and Afana Mustafa Ahmad Muhammad are responsible for the stabbing death of 38-year-old Sara Sharon, Hy”d, a mother of seven, in Netanya in 1993. Abu al Rub Mustafa Mahmoud Faisal is the terrorist who murdered Yoram Cohen, Hy”d, in Jenin in 1991. Damara Ibrahim Mustafa Bilal, was one of those who murdered Steven Frederick Rosenfeld, Hy”d, in 1989 while he was hiking near the city of Ariel in the West Bank. Abu Mohsin Khaled Ibrahim Jamal stabbed to death 76-year-old Shlomo Yahyam Hy”d, in 1991 as he came out to work in his garden in Moshav Kadima. All those released were convicted of having committed their crimes before the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.
They are the third batch to be released since the talks started, with the fourth and final batch of 26 scheduled for release in April. According to an Israeli media report, Netanyahu had originally agreed to release only 82 jailed terrorists. Kerry reportedly extended the number to 104 to comply with Abbas’ request. Netanyahu agreed to it, but refused to grant another Abbas request that the final batch include some jailed Israeli-Arabs. The prime minister also reportedly told Kerry that he might change his mind on the last point if the US agreed to release imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
BETTER TO KEEP THE KILLERS IN JAIL THAN KEEP BUILDING
The previous two terrorist releases were closely followed by the announcement of government approval of major construction projects in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, as a kind of quid pro quo, and the same was expected following Monday night’s release. Israeli media reports predicted an announcement of plans for 1,400 new housing units beyond the 1967 border, of which 600 would be in East Yerushalayim.
Even some members of Israel’s right wing pro-settlement establishment now say they would have preferred to see the terrorists kept in jail, even if that would have meant that no new housing projects would be built in East Yerushalayim and the West Bank during the current talks. Reportedly, another reason why Netanyahu agreed to the tradeoff between new construction and terrorist releases was to keep his conservative coalition partner, Naftali Bennet and his Habayit Yehudi party from leaving the coalition when the government agreed to resume the peace talks.
Meir Indor, the chairman of the Almagor terror victims association said that when “we put terrorists in prison, it sends a message: Don’t mess with the Israel nation — we are tough. Releasing them tells the world that Jewish blood is cheap.”
Indor said that when he was a soldier in the Israeli army hunting terrorists, “we knew when we captured them that we have to keep them in prison for as long as possible” because they will always remain killers, “that is the agenda of their lives.”
SENDING A DEADLY MESSAGE
Instead, when convicted killers are released, it sends the message that “If you kill a Jew, you’ll never serve a full prison term, and [you’ll] become a celebrated hero by the Palestinian Authority and Islamic world,” Indor said.
Indor also expressed anger at Kerry’s public warning to Israel in October that if the current peace talks fail, Israel would be at risk to a third intifada, because, “when Kerry said that, he ensured the Arabs will make it come true.”
Other Israelis opposed to the terrorist releases said that they resent the US forcing them to take the risk of releasing these dangerous “predators,” when it refuses to do the same. While the US insists that Israel release convicted murderers as a “good will gesture” to the Palestinians, it still to refuse to release Jonathan Pollard, who is harmless at this point, as a US good will gesture for Israel’s cooperation with the peace process. The administration also refuses to transfer the al Qaeda terrorists still held in Guantanamo Bay to prisons on US territory, let alone let them go free.
It is widely understood that the release of the terrorists and the announcement of new housing were part of a package deal that Secretary of State Kerry negotiated. The thinking was to give each side something that it could not get in any other way, which, for the Palestinians, was the release of the most notorious of the imprisoned terrorists, and for Israel, tacit permission to continue West Bank construction.
Even though the EU and other members of the international community are well aware of the terms of the deal that Kerry struck with both sides, they have pressured Israel not to approve new construction projects as new groups of terrorists are being set free.
KERRY’S NEXT VISIT
This week, Kerry is scheduled to visit the region for the tenth time since becoming Secretary of State. When the negotiating effort was launched this summer, Kerry gave it a 9 month time frame to reach agreement on the final status issues, such as setting borders and establishing long term security safeguards for Israel. According to media reports, by the end of January, Kerry intends to finalize a “framework” agreement outlining the basic points of the final peace deal.
Reportedly, Netanyahu has been assuring the leaders of his Likud party and Habayit Hayehudi that the framework will be very general in nature with few if any practical implications. A Likud MK said that Netanyahu told him its primary purpose is to permit the negotiations to be extended for another year. A Likud minister said that Netanyahu described it to him as an American position paper which Israel would not be obligated to sign. Instead, Kerry would ask Israel to accept it as the basis for continued negotiations, while allowing Israel to withhold its agreement to certain points.
At a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu said he had not yet received the American position paper and did not expect it to contain anything new to resolve the conflict. When Bennet was asked if he would quit the government if it agreed to Kerry’s proposal, he said he could not answer until he gets a chance to see its provisions for himself.
Netanyahu has insisted that any permanent peace deal must include formal Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, and declare an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu continues to insist that a Palestinian state must be demilitarized, and that they will have to give up the “dream” of a Palestinian refugee right of return and some of their territorial demands. None of this is new, but on Monday Netanyahu reiterated that “a peace agreement will only be signed if these vital interests are assured, particularly our security and their demilitarization.”
KEEPING ISRAELI TROOPS IN THE JORDAN VALLEY
A key security issue which remains unresolved is the future of Israeli military forces guarding Israel’s eastern border in the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu has insisted that a permanent Israeli military presence there is vital as a deterrent to an invasion by Israel’s Arab enemies to the east.
Kerry has proposed various arrangements to satisfy Israel’s security requirements while permitting the Palestinians to retain sovereignty over the area, but so far he has not been able to fashion an agreement. David Lahiani, the head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, says that Kerry and the Americans understand and accept Israel’s security need to maintain a military presence in the area, because of an inspection visit by a team of US military experts to the valley three months ago.
JORDAN IS NOT SECURE
The reason why a permanent Israeli defensive military presence in the Jordan Valley is critical to Israeli security is that Jordan’s current relatively moderate, pro-Western government is vulnerable to a coup by Palestinians who make up more than half of the county’s population.
A Palestinian-dominated Jordanian government could not be trusted to honor its current peace treaty with Israel, or maintain the demilitarized status of a new Palestinian state on the West Bank by stopping smuggling attempts across the river or the border crossing at the Allenby Bridge. It would also be more likely to cooperate with Israel’s radical enemies to the east by permitting their armies to move through the country and invade across the Jordan River (as happened in 1948).
An indication that the issue remains unresolved was a motion passed Sunday by an 8-3 vote of Israel’s ministerial committee on legislation that would effectively annex the Jordan Valley. Similar moves by the Knesset annexing East Yerushalayim immediately after the 1967 Six Day War and the Golan Heights in 1981 have been rejected by the international community. Netanyahu did not personally endorse the move, but he did nothing to stop it, either, and it does represent a declaration of intent by most of his cabinet to establish a permanent Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley
Outspoken dissent within the cabinet against the move was led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. She was joined by Yair Lapid and Yael German, both members of the Yesh Atid party. The Jordan Valley annexation was also attacked by former Labor Party leader Shelley Yachimovich.
LIVNI STILL ATTACKING THE SETTLEMENTS AS THE PROBLEM
Livni remains consistent in her opposition to the West Bank settlements, declaring once again on Monday that “the settlements are not part of Israel’s security, they are hurting it.”
Livni also condemned the continued construction of West Bank settlements as a waste of government money which should be used instead to build new housing within Israel’s pre-67 borders. She condemned those who complain that the Palestinians have proven themselves to be unworthy peace partners, because they would still oppose any Israeli territorial concessions on the West Bank whether the Palestinians were trustworthy or not. “They are happy whenever they can say that there is no peace partner, so that they can tell us do not even try,” Livni said.
She also said that Israel should continue to pursue a peace deal “even if there is no Palestinian peace partner.” That is because she claims that the dispute with the Palestinian imposes a “glass ceiling” on the continued growth of the Israeli economy and predicted that the current EU boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank will gradually be extended to the rest of the country.
FAILING TO LEARN THE LESSONS OF THE GAZA DISENGAGEMENT
Instead, she said, somewhat mysteriously, that if the Palestinians refuse to agree, “Israel should sign a peace agreement with rest of the world.” In other words, she was endorsing a unilateral withdrawal by Israel without securing an agreement first with the Arabs.
That too, has been tried before, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forcibly removed the Jewish residents of Gaza from their homes in 2005. That led, less than a year later, to the fall of Gaza under the control of Hamas, creating a permanent threat of terrorist attack to the residents of southern Israel.
Bennet ridiculed Livni’s suggestion that it was not necessary for the Palestinians to be a viable partner. He suggested sarcastically that perhaps she would have Israel to try to negotiate a peace agreement with aliens from outer space.
Netanyahu has repeatedly pointed out that if the Palestinian are serious about stopping new settlement construction, they would promptly agree to a peace settlement, whose territorial outlines, as peace advocates love to say, have been well known for many years. A peace agreement would instantly and permanently stop any new Israeli construction in Palestinian areas dead in their tracks.
The leaders of Israel’s right wing parties are also still unwilling to accept the American position that the pre-67 borders must serve as the starting point for drawing the final map separating Israel from the new Palestinian state. This has been the widespread assumption since 2000, when Ehud Barak made that offer to Yasser Arafat at the failed Camp David summit. Even with the assumption that in the end, Israel will retain the largest settlement blocs, abandoning most of the West Bank is still a bitter pill for supporters of the settlement movement to swallow.
PALESTINIANS THREATENING TO WALK AWAY AGAIN
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared once again this week that the peace process has failed, and rejected Kerry’s latest proposal to satisfy Israel’s security needs in the Jordan Valley. “We don’t need the nine-month period to judge the talks.” He held “Israel is responsible for foiling Kerry’s efforts,” by moving to annex the Jordan Valley.
Erekat said it was time for the PA to halt negotiations with Israel and renew its efforts to gain international recognition from the UN.
Other PA leaders also expressed their dismay at the Israel’s symbolic effort to bolster its case for a continued military presence in Jordan Valley. However, Palestinians appear to be more concerned that Kerry will press Abbas to accept the basic principle of the so-called two-state solution that Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state.
PA official Jamal Muheissen said that his leaders are under tremendous pressure from the US and Arab countries to accept Kerry’s latest ideas, which include an Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley, and agreement on another interim peace deal.
NETANYAHU SAYS HE MUST KEEP HIS PROMISES
During a Likud meeting Monday, Netanyahu noted that “both sides took commitments upon themselves when the talks began, like avoiding unilateral steps at international forums,” referring to the Erekat’s renewed call for UN recognition. He said that he has no choice but to carry out his promise to Kerry to release more Palestinian terrorists. “True leadership is tested on the ability to uphold decisions, hard as they may be,” he said. “We were not elected to lead Israel in order to make easy decisions.”
While Israel has been subject to more attacks in recent weeks, security officials have downplayed the threat of a new war, or another intifada terrorist uprising. Of four Israelis killed in the West Bank by terrorists since September, three of their killers have been arrested by Israeli security forces, and were found to have acted on their own rather than following orders issued by a central terrorist command.
ASIDE FROM IRAN, NO WAR ON THE HORIZON
Government officials have attributed most of the recent terror attacks to random acts in response to the general Palestinian incitement against Israel, or by small terrorist cells operating in Gaza and Lebanon.
Five Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon early Sunday morning with at least one of them landing near the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona, causing no damage. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. The Israeli army responded to the rocket fire with an artillery barrage aimed at the rocket firing area. A few hours later, Netanyahu told the cabinet that the rocket firing endangered civilians on both sides of the border. Two weeks ago, Shlomi Cohen, a soldier patrolling the Israeli side of the northern border near Rosh Hanikra along the Mediterranean coast was shot and killed by sniper fire from inside Lebanon.
On December 26, two rockets fired from Gaza fell near Ashkelon, causing no damage, and prompting a series of air strikes on terrorist facilities in Gaza in retaliation. Two days earlier, sniper fire from Gaza killed an Israeli Arab construction worker repairing storm damage to the border security fence. While Israel condemned all of these attacks, they were treated as isolated incidents and did not trigger any escalation in what has become a routine Israeli military responses.
It appears that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah are interested in a confrontation which could escalate into another round of major fighting with Israel now.
Despite their hard line rhetoric, Israel’s leaders want to avoid getting entangled in another war against the terrorists, regardless of the provocation. Israel’s security is more threatened by the uncertain outcome of Syria’s civil war, and the increasing likelihood that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons unless Israel acts, by itself, to stop it.
HEZBOLLAH HAS ITS HANDS FULL
Hezbollah does not pose an imminent threat to attack as long as it still has its hands full in Syria. More than 300 Hezbollah fighters have died trying to defend Assad’s regime against Syria’s Sunni rebels.
The Syrian war has already spilled over and has become a threat to Hezbollah on its home turf in Lebanon. Hezbollah is suspected in the killing on December 27 of Mohammad Chatah, a former Lebanese ambassador to the US who was a leader of the main pro-Western March 14 political party in the Lebanese parliament which is opposed both to Hezbollah and the influence of the Assad regime in Syria. He and four others died in a massive car bombing of his convoy of vehicles staged in downtown Beirut. Last week, a Syrian Sunni rebel group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis in a twin bombing outside Iran’s embassy in Beirut in October that Hezbollah had originally blamed on Israel. Hezbollah is also losing political support within Lebanon for involving the country in a foreign war and for its violent clashes in cities like Tripoli with some of the hundreds of thousands of Sunni Syrian refugees who have flocked to Lebanon.
Hamas also has been struggling to maintain control of Gaza because it has recently lost two key sources of financial and military support. Iran cut off its aid and weapons deliveries after Hamas leaders condemned Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2012. The Gaza economy lost another economic lifeline providing cheap supplies and contraband through the network of smuggling tunnels running beneath the Egyptian border. They were shut down by the Egyptian military after it overthrew the government led by Muhammed Morsi and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood last July. Hamas was founded as a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood 25 years ago.
Hamas has continued to build up its terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. It is digging more tunnels under the security fence for sneak attacks into Israel. It has permitted the occasional rockets to be launched and terrorist incidents along the border security fence, but it is in no position to risk another direct assault by the Israeli army.
HAMAS MORE ACTIVE IN THE WEST BANK
According to a recent Haaretz report, Hamas’ main terrorist activities are currently being carried out by proxies recruited in the West Bank by Hamas terrorists who were released from Israeli jails during the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange swap two years ago. They were not permitted to return to their West Bank homes. They were sent instead to Gaza, where Hamas assigned them to reorganize its terror networks in their former home towns. They recruit new members in the West Bank from a distance using the telephone and other forms of communication.
The cell members receive detailed instructions and funds from Hamas headquarters in Gaza. Israel has arrested several terrorists who were recruited on the West Bank by the Hamas networks. They had traveled to Jordan and Egypt, where they were smuggled into Gaza through the Rafiach tunnels to receive terrorist training.
It is a relatively low risk strategy for Hamas, because it does not maintain a formal presence in the West Bank that can be attacked in retaliation. It also serves to embarrass and undermine the authority of its main political rival, Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
The Shin Bet estimates that West Bank cells controlled by Hamas terrorists in Gaza who gained their freedom in the Shalit swap planned about 80 attacks, including bombings, kidnappings and shootings. Fortunately, most of those attempted attacks have failed.
RELEASED TERRORISTS LIKELY TO KILL AGAIN
But that experience suggests that the veteran terrorists now being released in conjunction with the current peace talks are likely to return to their deadly ways, making the price of continuing the peace process very high indeed for their future innocent Israeli victims, r”l.
In that respect, Abbas’ followers are no better than Hamas. The terrorist cells of his Fatah party are still talking about kidnapping more Israeli soldiers like Shalit, in order to force the release of more terrorists imprisoned by Israel.
Such statements, as well as the fresh threats by Erekat to abandon the negotiating process altogether, raise serious doubts as to whether the Palestinians are sincere about peace. There is every reason to suspect that the Palestinians are bluffing, waiting to see just how many more concessions Israel will agree to under US pressure before Abbas abandons the peace process, pocket his winnings and walks away.