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THE MOST sensible -- I almost wrote "the only sensible" -- sentence uttered this week sprang from the lips of a 5-year old boy.

After the prisoner swap, one of those smart-aleck TV reporters asked him: "Why did we release 1,027 Arabs for one Israeli soldier?" He expected, of course, the usual answer: because one Israeli is worth a thousand Arabs.

The little boy replied: "Because we caught many of them and they caught only one."

FOR MORE than a week, the whole of Israel was in a state of intoxication. Gilad Shalit indeed ruled the country (Shalit means "ruler"). His pictures were plastered all over the place like those of Comrade Kim in North Korea.

It was one of those rare moments, when Israelis could be proud of themselves. Few countries, if any, would have been prepared to exchange 1,027 prisoners for one. In most places, including the USA, it would have been politically impossible for a leader to make such a decision.

In a way it is a continuation of the Jewish ghetto tradition. The "Redemption of Prisoners" is a sacred religious duty, born of the circumstances of a persecuted and scattered community. If a Jew from Marseilles was captured by Muslim corsairs to be sold on the market of Alexandria, it was the duty of Jews in Cairo to pay the ransom and "redeem" him.

As the ancient saying goes: "All Israel are guarantors for each other."

Israelis could (and did) look in the mirror and say "aren't we wonderful?"

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IMMEDIATELY AFTER the Oslo agreement, Gush Shalom, the peace movement to which I belong, proposed releasing all Palestinian prisoners at once. They are prisoners-of-war, we said, and when the fighting ends, POWs are sent home. This would transmit a powerful human message of peace to every Palestinian town and village. We organized a joint demonstration with the late Jerusalemite Arab leader, Feisal Husseini, in front of Jeneid prison near Nablus. More than 10,000 Palestinians and Israelis took part.

But Israel has never recognized these Palestinians as prisoners-of-war. They are considered common criminals, only worse.

This week, the released prisoners were never referred to as "Palestinian fighters," or "militants" or just "Palestinians." Every single newspaper and TV program, from the elitist Haaretz to the most primitive tabloid, referred to them exclusively as "murderers" or, for good measure, "vile murderers."

One of the worst tyrannies on earth is the tyranny of words. Once a word becomes entrenched, it directs thought and action. As the Bible has it: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). Releasing a thousand enemy fighters is one thing, releasing a thousand vile murderers is something else.

Some of these prisoners have assisted suicide bombers in killing a lot of people. Some have committed really atrocious acts -- like the pretty young Palestinian woman who used the internet to lure a love-sick Israeli boy of 15 into a trap, where he was riddled with bullets. But others were sentenced to life for belonging to an "illegal organization" and possessing arms, or for throwing an ineffectual home-made bomb at a bus hurting nobody.

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Almost all of them were convicted by military courts. As has been said, military courts have the same relation to real courts as military music does to real music.

All of these prisoners, in Israeli parlance, have "blood on their hands." But which of us Israelis has no blood on his hands? Sure, a young woman soldier remotely controlling a drone that kills a Palestinian suspect and his entire family has no sticky blood on her hands. Neither has a pilot who drops a bomb on a residential neighborhood and feels only "a slight bump on the wing," as a former Chief of Staff put it. (A Palestinian once told me: "Give me a tank or a fighter plane, and I shall give up terrorism immediately.")

The main argument against the swap was that, according to Security Service statistics, 15% of prisoners thus released become active "terrorists" again. Perhaps. But the majority of them become active supporters of peace. Practically all of my Palestinian friends are former prisoners, some of whom were behind bars for 12 years and more. They learned Hebrew in prison, became acquainted with Israeli life by watching television and even began to admire some aspects of Israel, such as our parliamentary democracy. Most prisoners just want to go home, settle down and found a family.

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Gush

Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 has advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974, Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with PLO leadership. In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yassir Arafat, after crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in the Israeli (more...)
 

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