JERUSALEM (May. 22)
Officials here were in general agreement today that a “security threat” is posed by many if not all of the 600 Palestinians allowed to return to their homes in the administered territories and in Israel after Monday’s prisoner exchange.
But some officials saw the threat as long-term rather than immediate. The security forces are considered quite capable of handling it. All of the 600 under Israeli jurisdiction are being summoned to military government headquarters to be given temporary identification cards and a clear warning that any reversion on their part to terrorist or other hostile activities will be met with swift and severe punishment.
Similar warnings are being given the families of the freed prisoners and their known former associates. The 600 comprise more than half of the 1,150 Palestinians and other prisoners Israel exchanged for three of its soldiers held by the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a terrorist organization headed by Ahmed Jabril. The balance went to Lebanon, Syria or Libya after they were released.
LATEST PRISONER EXCHANGE IS UNIQUE
Israel has engaged in such lopsided prisoner exchanges in the past. But the latest one is unique in that some of the most notorious terrorists of the past two decades were turned loose from Israeli prisons where many were serving life sentences for mass killings of civilians.
It has triggered a serious national debate in which not only hardliners of the far right but many moderates are questioning the wisdom of negotiating with a terrorist gang in the first place and accepting its demands for the release of convicted murderers.
SECURITY FORCES CAN COPE
Shlomo Goren, coordinator of government affairs in the administered territories, said in a radio interview today that there was a “definite possibility” of a threat to security. Referring to the convicts who have returned to their homes in the territories, Goren said “This is a group of people who did not finish serving their sentences in jail and they are definitely liable to form to a certain extent, a security threat. Most definitely.”
But Goren said the security forces could cope with the situation satisfactorily. He noted that the freed men were told that they now have a chance to lead a normal life and some may in fact try to.
Knesset Member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of the Yahad party, himself a former coordinator for the territories, said the atmosphere of elation in the West Bank and Gaza which greeted the returned prisoners “could undoubtedly encourage attacks and a wave of political subversion in the future.”
He added, “In terms of their need to reorganize after their toil of many years, I would imagine that their feeling is hard. I have no doubt that they will cope and I hope that some of those being released will preserve peace and quiet … I hope that the lesson they learned in prison over many years will lead them to conclude that it is best not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to try to curb their activity.”
But Ben-Eliezer admitted that he spoke “with a great many reservations. I doubt that this is what will happen.”
DOESN’T SEE POLITICAL SITUATION CHANGING
Goren said he did not believe the release of terrorists would improve the political situation in the territories in a way that would lead to political negotiations over their future status. But, he stressed, the prisoner exchange should be seen as independent of any political process.
Goren said the government would continue its current policy aimed at improving the quality of life of Arabs in the territory regardless of the presence among them now of convicted terrorists.
There were differences of opinion among other officials. Some maintained that lessons were learned by many years spent in prison. Others said that prisoners who had been local commanders of El Fatah before their incarceration would continue to act as behind-the-scenes organizers of terrorism. El Fatah is the terrorist wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization loyal to PLO chief Yasir Arafat.
FUROR AMONG WEST BANK SETTLERS
Absolutely unequivocal in their attitude toward the prisoner exchange are the Gush Emunim, the most militant of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Long before the exchange they were agitating for the expulsion of all hostile Arabs from the territory and they are now renewing their demands for the death penalty for terrorists.
One Gush Emunim leader, Elyakim Haetzni, told a Voice of Israel Radio reporter yesterday that the settlers are collecting the names and addresses “of the murderers who are now among us and invite further information about them for the purpose of self-defense.”
Asked what the list would be used for, Haetzni replied, “If you walk on the street and you see one of them by your side, I would expect you to walk on the other side.” It was not clear what Haetzni may have been hinting.
VIEW FROM THE ARAB SIDE
On the Arab side there was, not surprisingly, a totally different reaction. Mohammad Wattad, a Knesset member of Mapam, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he felt the release of the prisoners should not be an occasion to lament the fact that murderers were freed but rather to create a political atmosphere that would give momentum to political negotiations.
A similar viewpoint was expressed by Aziz Shehade, an Arab lawyer who was active on behalf of the prisoners. His brother, Munir Shehade, 30, was among the El Fatah terrorists released Monday after serving close to six years of a sentence imposed in 1979.