Victims families protest release of Palestinian prisoners

Mika Bromberg stood outside the Prime Minister’s Office holding a black-and-white poster of her brother-in-law Avraham Bromberg, an Israeli soldier who was killed while hitchhiking in 1981. The attackers shot him, stole his gun and pushed him out of the car. He was found on the side of a highway and died of his wounds two days later.

Maher and Kareem Younis, both Arab citizens of Israel, were tried and found guilty of the murder. They received a sentence of life in prison, later reduced to 40 years. In an ironic twist, one of the attackers knew Avraham, as they had attended high school together in the northern Israeli town of Hadera.

Now the Younis brothers, who have been in jail for 30 years, are among the 104 Palestinian prisoners set to be released in a goodwill gesture tied to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

“These men are terrible murderers — how can they be let go?” Bromberg asked last week as the Cabinet was considering the release. Ministers eventually voted 13-7 in favor after many hours of debate. “This is our last struggle for those killed. This morning my husband was so upset he collapsed.”

Soon after the attack, Bromberg became pregnant; she gave birth to a boy on the one-year anniversary of the killing. He was named Avi, after his uncle.

Relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 28. photo-jta-flash90-yonatan sindel

“The State of Israel is betraying the people of Israel,” said Avi Bromberg, now 32. “This will lessen the motivation of soldiers who capture these terrorists.”

Nearby, Pnina Karamani Hillel held a poster of her older brother, Ronen Karamani, who was killed in 1990.

“One of the terrorists [responsible for his death] was released in the deal to free Gilad Shalit,” she said, referring to the 2011 exchange of 1,000 prisoners that Hamas demanded in exchange for freeing captured soldier Shalit, who had been held for five years. “That was acceptable, because it was to save a fellow Jew,” Hillel said. “But in this case, it’s to convince Abu Mazen [nom de guerre of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] to come to the table. If he really wanted peace, he would come with no preconditions.”

A poll commissioned by the Yisrael Hayom newspaper last week found that 84 percent of Israelis oppose releasing prisoners in exchange for returning to the negotiating table. The prisoners are due to be freed in four stages, with the first expected in the wake of procedural meetings between Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Washington earlier this week.

Ahead of the Cabinet vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed directly to the Israeli public to support the release.

“This is an indescribably difficult decision to make — it is painful for the bereaved families, it is painful for the entire nation, and it is also painful for me,” Netanyahu wrote in an open letter released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu said Israel has freed some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners over the years as goodwill gestures and in efforts to restart peace talks. He said that now, too, he believes that restarting talks with the Palestinians is important for Israel.

“I believe it is of the utmost importance for the State of Israel to enter a diplomatic process,” he wrote. “This is important both to exhaust the possibilities of ending the conflict with the Palestinians and to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us.”

Some Israelis agree, including those who have lost close relatives to terror.

“Look how much Israel was prepared to do to release just one soldier?” said Robi Damelin, whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. “For them, these prisoners are soldiers. Why can’t we understand how important this is to them?”

Damelin, who immigrated to Israel from South Africa, is active in the Parents Circle, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the conflict.

“If we don’t release these prisoners, nothing will ever happen and things will never move forward,” she said. “I saw in South Africa how people can change, and I want it to happen here, too.”