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Flap over Release of Terrorists

May 9, 1979
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Premier Menachem Begin’s government is in for a severe buffeting because of its release of 76 Palestinian terrorists for one Israeli prisoner last March and the revelation yesterday that at least 33 of the Palestinians had been serving maximum sentences for outrages that resulted in loss of life or injuries to Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Two no-confidence motions filed in the Knesset yesterday by the opposition Labor Party and the Shai faction are expected to be defeated — but only because coalition discipline requires all members to rally in support of the government against such motions.

Many coalition MKs are, in fact, seething with anger. Yehuda Ben-Meir of the National Religious Party, said today that he sympathized fully with the opposition motions and while he will have to back the government, he will do so with a “heavy heart. ” Ben-Meir seemed to echo the majority sentiment in the Knesset when he observed that the release of the terrorists was “one of the most serious mistakes ever committed by any Israeli government.”

He revealed what had been shrouded in secrecy until now — that the decision to make the lopsided prisoner exchange was taken by the Ministerial Defense Committee by a narrow 4-3 majority. Neither the full Cabinet nor the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee was consulted.

It was learned today that Begin, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon and Health Minister Eliezer Shostak voted in favor of the exchange. It was opposed by three non-Likud Cabinet members — Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Interior Minister Yosef Burg and Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir.


The government is also being taken to task for lack of candor in the affair. Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres accused it of deliberate misrepresentation when it claimed, at the time of the exchange, that two-thirds of the released prisoners were common criminals serving time for non-terrorist related offenses and that none of the rest were “well-known” terrorists. Until the list was published in Yediot Achronot yesterday — after it appeared in terrorist propaganda pamphlets — the government had refused to divulge the names of the released prisoners.

Most serious, according to the opposition, is the effect the exchange will have an Israel’s war against the terrorists. It is bound to serve as a precedent to encourage the Palestinians to capture more Israeli hostages and bargain for the release of other imprisoned terrorists, many MKs said today. Peres observed that the government’s recent decision to apply the death penalty to terrorists convicted of brutal crimes will only make matters worse. That was tantamount to saying “either capture hostages and bargain for the release of your men or we will hang them,” Peres said.

Meir Amit, leader of the Shai faction, and other critics, have asked publicly whether Israel will now have the moral right to refuse to negotiate with the terrorists or to risk lives by sending soldiers in to rescue future hostages who might be released in a prisoner exchange.


Begin defending the government’s action, denied that he had ordered the prisoner exchange that was effected in Geneva last March 14 as a “gesture” toward Egypt. He said he acted out of purely humanitarian reasons on behalf of captured Reserves Pvt. Avraham Amram who had been tortured by the terrorists and might have been executed. Previously, government sources said the humanitarian approach had been warranted by the condition of Amram’s wife and children.

Meanwhile, the exchange has proven to be a propaganda bonanza for Ahmed Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command which captured Amram and killed four of his companions in south Lebanon a year ago. They are boasting that they are the first Palestinians ever to succeed in freeing their comrades and did so without risk to themselves.

The matter has raised new security concerns. There is no guarantee that the freed killers will not murder again. At least II are reported to have returned to Israel or Israeli-occupied territory. According to one report, they are being used to train terrorist recruits and teach them how to conduct themselves under the pressure of interrogation by Israeli security officers if caught.

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