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NEWS ANALYSIS Release of female terrorists stuns Israeli victims’ families

JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 (JTA) — When Israel’s Supreme Court decided to allow the release of Palestinian female prisoners this week, many here found the ruling impossible to accept. “The thought is unbearable,” said Ora Klein, whose husband, Zvi, was murdered in Ramallah six years ago, “They are releasing terrorists with blood on their hands.” But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was determined to proceed with the releases. He was just as resolute on this issue as he was in winning Cabinet and Knesset approval for last month’s Hebron accord. On Monday, the high court rejected a last-minute appeal from a group of families of Israelis killed in terror attacks, thereby removing the last roadblock to the releases, which began Tuesday. The releases were on the agenda of Sunday’s summit between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, who met at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip to discuss the implementation of unfulfilled portions of previous Israeli-Palestinian accords, including last month’s deal on Hebron. Next week, eight Israeli-Palestinian teams are slated to begin negotiating further implementation of the agreements. Those talks will set the stage for the resumption of the permanent-status negotiations, scheduled for March. A total of 31 female prisoners, the last of the Palestinian women being detained, were released this week. What made the releases of the women particularly controversial — and hindered their originally planned release in late 1995 — is the fact that some of them had been convicted of killing Israelis. Abir al-Wahidi, 27, one of those released, shot Ora Klein’s husband as he drove on a main street in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Wahidi, who was at the time a student at Bir Zeit University, was sentenced to 17 years in jail, but this week she was on her way home, after having served less than half her prison term. Another murderess released was Lamia Ma’aruf, 32, a member of a terrorist group that kidnapped and killed soldier David Manos in 1985. She was detained a year later and sentenced to life. Twenty-three of the female prisoners were to have been freed soon after the previous Labor government joined the Palestinians at the signing of the 1995 Interim Agreement. But President Ezer Weizman refused at the time to pardon five of the prisoners because they had been convicted of killing Israelis. The remaining prisoners refused pardons until all of them, including the five, won their release. Weizman has since dropped his opposition. Netanyahu’s willingness to release the prisoners represented another hurdle overcome as Israel and the Palestinian Authority tread the long and difficult road toward settling their historic conflict. He said the Palestinians had taken sufficient steps since the signing of the Hebron agreement to warrant the prisoner releases at this time. But word that the releases were to finally take place prompted bitter opposition from Jewish families of victims of Arab terror, as well as from politicians from both ends of the Israeli political spectrum, including from Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Knesset Member Shaul Yahalom, chairman of the Knesset Law Committee and a member of the National Religious Party, which is part of Netanyahu’s coalition, said the release of the prisoners represented “the collapse of morality and justice.” Knesset Member Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, complained that “Arafat once again proves that he gets whatever he wants.” And a member of the Cabinet, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, also objected, citing the failure of the Palestinian Authority to turn over terrorists who had murdered Israelis, subsequently escaped to the self- rule areas and who were now being held by the Palestinian authorities. According to the Interim Agreement, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to honor Israeli extradition requests, unless the suspect is already serving a sentence in a Palestinian jail. The two sides are divided, however, on whether the Palestinian courts have the right to impose a sentence that would preclude extradition. Israeli officials claim that the Palestinians are holding at least 30 suspects, despite repeated requests by Israel to extradite them. At last week’s Cabinet session, Netanyahu argued that there were currently more important issues to be discussed with the Palestinians. That prompted National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon to describe the pardons of the female prisoners as a “very severe act.” “I don’t know of any other country which does something like this and does not insist on reciprocity. The Palestinian Authority does not extradite prisoners,” he added. When Netanyahu described the releases as a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians, Sharon said: “And when will they make a gesture toward us?” In the end, Netanyahu tried to sweeten the pill by telling the Cabinet that Israel would consider pardoning 15 Israelis who had been convicted of committing crimes against Arabs. These include Ami Popper, who gunned down seven Arab laborers on their way to work in Rishon Lezion in 1990, and Yoram Skolnik, who murdered a captured Arab terrorist in 1993.