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THE MIDEAST

Plan to Release Palestinian Prisoners Spurs Debate From Family of Israeli Victims

JERUSALEM -- The relatives of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks waged a charged debate Sunday over the planned release of militants this week in a deal to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years.

Several families have filed a court appeal against the deal, though it is not expected to halt the swap in which Hamas militants will release Sgt. Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Among the prisoners to be released on Tuesday are militants involved in deadly bombings and other attacks targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers.

The internal Israeli debate, combined with the hero's welcome awaiting the Palestinian prisoners upon their return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reflect the sharply diverging narratives surrounding the swap. Many Israelis perceive the prisoners as cold-blooded terrorists, while in Palestinian society, prisoners are widely seen as resistance fighters.

The domestic debate in Israel largely focuses on whether Israel is paying too heavy a price.
In Israel, Ron Kehrmann said he opposes the swap, which would free three militants involved in the 2003 suicide bombing that killed his 17-year-old daughter, Tal. Kehrmann said the release could result in more Israeli deaths.

"Is the blood of the next captured soldier or citizen less red than the blood of Gilad Schalit?" he asked.

But other bereaved relatives believe the price is worth paying to free the captive soldier, who has been held in Gaza for more than five years. The fate of Schalit has preoccupied the nation since his capture in June 2006.

"To know your son is alive and not be able to hold him, this is the worst possible thing," said Yosefa Goldstein, whose daughter Sari, 21, died in a 2002 bus bombing.

Many argue that militants who killed Israelis could return to armed activity and that releasing so many prisoners, including many implicated in some of the deadliest attacks in recent memory, in return for one soldier bolsters groups like Hamas at the expense of more moderate Palestinians. These considerations, this position argues, outweigh the life of one soldier.

But Israel's government decided, with the backing of the security services and what would appear to be a majority of Israelis, that no better deal could be achieved and that Schalit's return justified the price.

Among Palestinians, there is ongoing disagreement over whether the use of violence has been counterproductive in the quest for statehood. However, even those opposed to violence on tactical grounds argue that the prisoners sacrificed for a common cause and that Palestinians have the right to resist Israel's 44-year military occupation.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians were preparing a hero's welcome for the returning prisoners. In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- largely sidelined during the swap negotiations between Israel's government and Hamas, his political rival -- was to hold a reception for released prisoners Tuesday, said an aide, Saeb Erekat.

In Israel, the debate over the release has led some to take the law into their own hands.
Shvuel Schijveschuurder, 27, lost his parents and three siblings in 2001 when attackers blew up a crowded pizza restaurant in Jerusalem, killing 15 people. A Palestinian woman who transported the bomber to the restaurant is among those slated for release.

On Friday, Tel Aviv police arrested him for vandalizing a memorial to the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in what seemed to be an attempt to draw attention to the family's opposition to the swap.

Last week, after the decision was announced, his 20-year-old sister, Lea Schijveschuurder, stood outside a Jerusalem protest tent where 300 supporters of the deal were celebrating. She held a sign that read, "My parents' blood shouts from the grave."

A Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Sunday that the swap deal for Schalit will encourage the Islamic group to capture more soldiers.

"The lessons we've learned by kidnapping soldiers leads us to continue the kidnappings," the Hamas leader said. "We still have 7,000 prisoners in (Israeli) jails, and they also need to be released."

In the Palestinian territories, families were waiting anxiously, especially for the return of some of the longest-serving prisoners.

In the West Bank village of Kobar, 47-year-old Hanan Barghouti said she was counting down the hours until the release of her brother 57-year-old Nael, who has been in prison since 1978 for the killing of an Israeli man.

"We are waiting for him to come out, get married and have a family like everyone else," she said.