What Israel's Release Of Palestinian Prisoners Means For Peace

Dec 31, 2013
Originally published on December 31, 2013 9:17 am

On Tuesday, Israel released another two-dozen Palestinian prisoners convicted of violent crimes against Israelis.

It's the third of four groups to be released before their sentences are up, part of a confidence-building deal that helped restart peace negotiations in July.

Palestinian Omar Masoud was a prisoner freed in one of the previous releases. He says that when he agreed to kill an Israeli working in the Gaza Strip, he expected consequences.

"I knew I would go to prison, or get killed and become a martyr, or I'd have to run away abroad," Masoud says. "These are the choices every fighter faces."

Masoud was sentenced to 90 years in an Israeli prison for the 1993 murder of Ian Feinberg. But two months ago, just 20 years into his sentence, Masoud was set free. He was in the second group of Palestinian prisoners Israel agreed to release to restart peace talks. Feinberg's sister, Gila Molcho, found out from a phone call after a family celebration.

"It was my daughter's bat mitzvah Sunday evening [and] we must have gone to sleep about 4 o'clock," Molcho says. "I was woken up by a journalist asking what I think about the fact that my brother's murderer will be let out two days later."

Molcho was dismayed. Other people involved in her brother's murder had been freed in previous political deals, but Masoud was one of the two held directly responsible for his death. Molcho says Feinberg, a lawyer, was Zionistic and politically conservative, but that her brother had business skills he thought could help Gaza at that time.

"He thought that if he could bring work to the Gaza area, he would be improving their quality of life," she says. "So when the guy stormed his office, with a gun on him with a bayonet, he must have had the shock of his life because he believed in people."

Molcho says Masoud is a cold-blooded killer. Masoud says Israeli policies forced him to murder.

"Every fighter has humanity, but when the occupation kills your children, your elderly, your mothers, doesn't allow you to develop your society, your vision becomes clouded," Masoud says. "The Israeli occupation imposed injustice on us and didn't give us room to forgive."

Legitimization Or An Unacceptable Gesture?

Israel's decision to free 104 Palestinian prisoners gave Masoud his life back. He believes it helped legitimize the peace process, too, in the eyes of Palestinians.

"Of course [this] pushes the peace process forward," he says. "It helps the Palestinian position, it stops possible protests in the Palestinian street, and the Palestinian prisoners are reconnected with their people."

But Israeli Gila Molcho feels betrayed. She says the release is a political gesture with no peace guaranteed.

"I honestly believe that Bibi Netanyahu, unfortunately, can be easily bent. And whoever is pushing hardest is the way he bends," she says, using the Israeli prime minister's nickname. "Until the Israelis stand up and say, 'You are selling our blood as a gesture, and that's unacceptable,' there won't be a change."

Netanyahu is also expected to formally announce plans for more Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians claim as part of any future state. He did the same with both previous prisoner releases, easing Israeli anger over the prisoner deal but infuriating Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Gila Molcho fears that newly freed prisoners will return to violence. Omar Masoud, who is almost 40 years old, says he is too old to kill again.

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Early this morning, Israel released more than two dozen Palestinian prisoners who had been convicted of violent attacks against Israelis. This was the third of four groups that are supposed to be freed as part of a deal that helped restart peace negotiations last summer. To get an idea of what these releases mean to Palestinians and Israelis, NPR's Emily Harris spoke with one prisoner who was released earlier and the sister of the man he killed.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: When Palestinian Omar Masoud agreed to kill an Israeli working in the Gaza Strip, he expected consequences.

OMAR MASOUD: (Through interpreter) I knew I would go to prison, or get killed and become a martyr, or I'd have to run away abroad. These are the choices every fighter faces.

HARRIS: Masoud was sentenced to 90 years in an Israeli prison for the murder of Ian Feinberg. But just 20 years later, two months ago, Masoud was set free. He was in the second group of Palestinian prisoners Israel agreed to release to restart peace talks. Feinberg's sister, Gila Molcho, found out from a phone call after a family celebration.

GILA MOLCHO: It was my daughter's bat mitzvah on Sunday evening, we celebrated, we must have gone to sleep about 4 o'clock. I was woken up at 7 o'clock in the morning by a journalist asking what I think about the fact that my brother's murderer will be let out two days later.

HARRIS: She was dismayed. Other people involved in her brother's murder had been freed in previous political deals, but Masoud was one of the two held directly responsible for his death. Molcho says her brother was Zionistic and politically conservative, but a lawyer with business skills he thought could do good in Gaza at that time.

MOLCHO: He thought that if he could bring work to the Gaza area, he would be improving the way they live, their quality of life. And what that would do was then reduce terror because there would be less motivation to go in that direction and more motivation to build a life. So when the guy stormed his office with a gun on him with a bayonet, he must have had the shock of his life because he believed in people.

HARRIS: Molcho says Masoud is a cold-blooded killer. Masoud says Israeli policies forced him to murder.

MASOUD: (Through interpreter) Every fighter has humanity, but when the occupation kills your children, your elderly, your mothers, it doesn't allow you to develop your society, your vision becomes clouded. The Israeli occupation imposed injustice on us and didn't give us room to forgive.

HARRIS: Israel's decision to free 104 Palestinian prisoners gave Masoud his life back. He believes it helped legitimize the peace process too, in the eyes of Palestinians.

MASOUD: (Through interpreter) Of course it pushes the peace process forward. It helps the Palestinian position, it stops possible protests in the Palestinian street, and the Palestinian prisoners are reconnected with their people.

HARRIS: But Israeli Gila Molcho feels betrayed. She called the release a political gesture with no peace guaranteed.

MOLCHO: I honestly believe that Bibi Netanyahu, unfortunately, can be easily bent. And whoever is pushing hardest is the way he bends. And until the Israelis stand up and say you are selling our blood as a gesture, and that's unacceptable, there won't be a change.

HARRIS: Netanyahu is expected to announce plans soon for more Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians claim as part of any future state. He did the same with both previous prisoner releases, easing Israeli anger over the prisoner deal, but infuriating Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Gila Molcho fears that newly freed prisoners will return to violence. Omar Masoud, almost 40, says he is too old to kill again. Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.