One oppressively hot August morning, my daughter Malki set off with her best friend Michal to decorate with welcome signs the bedroom of another friend returning from vacation.
Afterward, Malki called me to say that she and Michal were heading to the city center. There she would catch a bus to a summer camp counselors’ meeting in another Jerusalem suburb. “I love you” we told each other – as we usually ended our conversations. It promised to be a day of giving and sharing like every day was for Malki.
Thirteen years later, I still love her and pine for her dreadfully. But now, the only way for me to express that is to seek justice for her murder.
Because that same hot August morning another young woman, Ahlam Tamimi, set off on a very different type of mission. A twenty year old self-described journalism student, she took two weapons – a 10 kg. bomb and an eager suicide bomber. They proceeded to the Sbarro pizza restaurant which Tamimi had scouted days earlier. Jewish women and children frequent it at lunchtime and Tamimi liked that. As this embodiment of evil would later brag, she hungered for child victims and the more the better.
Malki and Michal had detoured from their intended route to eat there too. They were among the fifteen men, women and children who perished in the explosion.
Today, Malki and Michal lie buried side by side, while their murderer, who smiled happily to learn her tally of dead children, is free and thriving in Jordan. She frequently travels in the Arab world to incite adoring crowds to follow in her footsteps.
In my country, my husband and I are not welcome to decry this. Parents of murdered children are hailed as heroes when they declare that they want the murderer to go unpunished. Whether for the sake of a prisoner “swap”, to prolong the negotiations with the PA or, as the cliche goes, “to promote peace”. Waiving our right to justice is considered the noble, patriotic thing to do.
Our quest for justice, for a life sentence for Tamimi – there is no capital punishment here – has invited accusations that we are merely vengeful.
Yet nothing will convince us that freeing murderers is an acceptable, integral part of any peace process.
Malki’s murderer was released in October 2011, the beneficiary of another terrorists-walk-free deal. Some would say we should have learned to live with that reality.
Yet, with each release of terrorist murderers – tried, convicted and unrepentant – my government thrusts a fresh dagger into my heart and conveys the message again and again: “Your child was not really murdered. And your child’s killer does not really deserve to be punished.”
True, my leaders have been subjected to inordinate pressure to free terrorist murderers from the West, and in particular, from the US. Threats and rewards have been dangled before prime minister Bibi Netanyahu to elicit from him a travesty of justice that they themselves would never consider.
We saw that hypocrisy in sharp relief when terrorists who had not even been tried yet but were strongly suspected of murders of American soldiers were recently released from Afghani prisons. The United States government was outraged. The US embassy criticized the releases as “deeply regrettable”, a move that could lead to further violence in Afghanistan. The US military in Afghanistan warned that “release of these dangerous individuals poses a threat to U.S., Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the Afghan population”.
It is a tight spot into which our prime minister has been rammed. Still, that is a lame excuse for releasing murderers imprisoned in Israel. Netanyahu holds the keys to their cells and the decision to use them is his and his alone. For a politician who has cast himself as a tough talker, Netanyahu has, in this instance, chosen the softest route available.
But it was a carefully-made choice.
He is a seasoned and savvy politician who knows his constituency well. In both the left and the right camps, these releases are ‘acceptable’. Terrorists are deemed currency for him to dole out whenever he sees fit.
Unspecified calculations, secret strategies, and the deepest wisdom have been attributed to Netanyahu by his supporters to rationalize his odious actions. And so it has been left predominantly to the victims themselves to take up the fight.
It has been a fruitless challenge.
Our prime minister has neither deigned to meet with any of us nor even to respond to our written pleas, although he did say publicly in 2011 that he had sent all of us personal letters of explanation. Surprisingly none of those personal letters ever reached any of us.
The media have played no small part in pressuring Israel. We have all been subjected to sob-stories about ex- prisoners who either maintain their innocence or their rehabilitation to garner favor. Gullible journalists like the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren are ready willing and able to oblige with sympathetic pieces. Her most recent specimen, “Remaking a Life After Years in an Israeli Prison”, was particularly abhorrent.
Where are the pieces about the terrorists like Ahlam Tamimi who declare “I have no regrets” and who return to terrorism – as nearly 50% of them do?
Many families of victims are incensed, pained and fearful of the consequences these releases entail. Some of us have noted that the conduct of the PA, of its chief Mahmoud Abbas and of the entire Palestinian people does not justify a gesture of this sort. They have pointed out that the celebrations and glory that are lavished on released murderers contradict their claims of a desire for peace and rejection of terrorism. They remind us of the high rate of recidivism.
But those are not the strongest arguments.
There is really only one constant, immutable, irrefutable flaw in these releases. They are unjust. Plain and simple: undeniably unjust. They isolate one category of murders from the rest and declare them less significant, less tragic, less criminal, less intolerable.
Justice, as we all know, is blind. Or at least it should be. It should be blind to the race, religion, creed and gender of both the murderer and his victim.
These releases contravene a basic tenet of any democratic state. It is time for Netanyahu to regain his moral compass, turn back the clock, and reinstate the inviolability of Israel’s judiciary.
This time, Netanyahu needs to show some spine and say ‘no’ to the impending prisoner release.