By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
WEST BANK —There was a clown-car moment on a hill outside Hebron, in the West Bank, when the buses appeared on the road below: People were so excited, they first piled into their cars to drive down to meet the buses, then piled out again when they saw the buses moving surprisingly fast up the hill toward them, honking and studded with newly released prisoners hanging out the windows.
“Here! Here! Make the bus stop here!” shouted the crowd waiting on the hill, as they flooded into the road.
They banged on the door of the first bus until the driver opened up, letting men step off to be clamped into one fierce hug after another.
“How do I feel? Like gold,” said one man, grinning, after embracing his friend Sa’id Abed, a high school science teacher who was getting out after 22 months in an Israeli prison as an “administrative detainee” — meaning he was never charged with a crime.
This is the second time in the last several months that Israel has released a large batch of Palestinian prisoners. Each release has triggered a manic-depressive outpouring, among Palestinians, of euphoria, rage, apprehension and apathy. Each release has also been a very different bargain, with different winners, but the clear losers have been the same both times: the vast majority of Palestinians.
Abed, the science teacher, is one of 400 Palestinians — most of them administrative detainees like him — released by Israel at the end of January as part of a devil’s bargain with Hezbollah, a terrorist group in Lebanon. The bargain was this: Israel handed over the Palestinian prisoners and more than 30 other men it had been holding, plus the bodies of several dozen Lebanese nationals, and in return Hezbollah gave up the remains of three Israeli soldiers and one live Israeli businessman — all of whom the group had abducted.
Once again, just to be clear: That’s 430 prisoners released at the request of a terrorist organization, in return for three dead bodies and one guy.
Israelis were deeply ambivalent about the Hezbollah deal, and Americans should be too.
“This story does not have a happy end,” mused Israel’s pre-eminent political writer, Nahum Barnea, in a column about the swap. “It puts Israel in a strange position. Since September 11, 2001, America has been waging a war to the death against terror. This war dictates norms to other states: no negotiations with terrorist organizations. And here is Israel negotiating with a terrorist organization, compromising with it, and granting it legitimacy and prestige. It is possible to understand how this happened, but it is difficult to applaud.”
It’s possible to understand because Israel is a small country (only 6.3 million) where most citizens are required to do military service: Missing soldiers are everyone’s son, brother, father, uncle, nephew. For months, Israelis watched on TV as the families of the three soldiers who’d been captured by Hezbollah cried and refused to believe that the men were dead, even though the Israeli Ministry of Defense had declared them officially dead years ago.
The businessman’s daughter had a baby during the negotiations, and she pleaded in the papers for the deal to go through so her father could see his first grandchild. Even a scandal — the businessman might face prosecution in Israel for the allegedly shady business he was conducting in Lebanon when he was kidnapped — was only one more reason for Israel to hold its nose while still going ahead with the trade.
For different reasons, many Palestinians were also ambivalent about the deal. Some were thrilled, like Said Abed, the science teacher detained for almost two years. He’s 31 years old, hasn’t had kids yet and is eager to start a family.
“I was a new bridegroom when I was imprisoned,” he said, while another prisoner tried to climb out the window as the bus drove along. “They consider me a dangerous activist. I do not know what the charges against me were.”
He added: “I thank Hassan Nasrallah,” meaning the Hezbollah leader who organized the swap.
But other Palestinians, many of them family of the approximately 6,000 prisoners still in Israel, called the deal a “cop-out” and a “betrayal.” On a call-in show in Hebron, according to a story in Israel’s leftish newspaper Ha’aretz, some people were so incensed by what they saw as the puny number of prisoners being released that they demanded the following day be declared a “national day of mourning” to protest the deal. While the head of the Palestinian Authority’s prisoner-support division tried to soothe callers, they replied that almost three-quarters of the prisoners freed were due to get out this year anyway. They dismissed the Hezbollah deal as no more than a slightly bigger version of the prisoner releases Israel usually does around the Muslim holidays to ease prison crowding.
One caller went so far as to start cursing Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader who made the deal.
“For four months, we have been watching Nasrallah speak about the exchange deal and make promises, but he is no different from other Arab leaders,” he said before launching into his curses.
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