In Israel, lone voices support Palestinian prisoner release as necessary for peace

JERUSALEM — No one was surprised when Dr. Adel Misk rushed into the emergency room at Jerusalem's Mukassed Hospital, right behind a stretcher carrying a 73-year-old man with a bullet wound to the head. Though he wasn't on staff, Misk, then 39, was a well-known neurologist.

It was March 1993, the beginning of an early Ramadan. A team worked for 40 minutes, but "his skull was shattered, his brain was exposed and he was unconscious," Misk remembers in a conversation with GlobalPost. "There wasn't really any hope. Of course, no one knew he was my father."

That afternoon at around five, Juma'a Misk had walked home from work, as he did every day, from the Old City. He was anticipating a family meal at the end of the traditional fast.

"A bunch of children had thrown rocks at a truck," Misk remembers. "The truck driver stopped his truck and got to the street but by then the children had scattered. The only person he saw was my father, and he shot him in the head." Misk, who turned 60 last week, says his father was shot at point-blank range 10 yards from home.

The tragedy had the result of turning Misk, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem and a senior specialist at a major west Jerusalem hospital, into a peace activist and a member of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization of about 500 Israelis and Palestinians who have lost close family members to the conflict and fight for national reconciliation.

The group was founded in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal, whose son, Arik, a 19-year-old soldier, hitched a ride in July 1994 from his base to a nearby clinic for a blood test. The guys in the car he boarded appeared to be religious Jews, wearing skullcaps and speaking impeccable Hebrew.

In fact, they were members of a Hamas cell who had set out to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Arik was shot dead in the fracas, still in the car.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," declares Matthew 5:9, but no one can say peacemaking is easy. That's been especially true this week here in Israel.

After a three-year hiatus, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis are scheduled to restart on Wednesday. It is hoped that the negotiations, if successful, will resolve such fraught issues as the final boundaries of a future State of Palestine, dueling claims for rule over Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees.

As a goodwill gesture, 104 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails will be released in four groups. Those in the initial group of 26 prisoners were all convicted of murder, and each has served more than 20 years in jail. Many are aged, but some are young men who have spent more time in jail than in society.

About 4,700 Palestinian "security prisoners," mostly men from the West Bank and Gaza convicted of crimes of terror, are held in Israeli jails.

For Israelis, they are terrorists. For Palestinians, they are heroes of the Palestinian national struggle, who have sacrificed their own freedom for the cause. The figure is eerily similar to the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks — 4,036, according to Zvika Pozis Shachak, the director of the Organization of Israeli Terror Victims.

Frankenthal and Misk are among the people speaking out in favor of the release of Palestinian prisoners, while many others vociferously decry the release of those who killed their family members.

On Monday, Israeli media focused almost exclusively on the anguished voices of family members whose loved ones were killed at the hands of those about to be released. One of them, Pini Rotenberg — whose father Isaac, a Holocaust survivor, was killed in 1994 when attacked from behind with an ax — said on Israel Army Radio that he could not accept the release of his father's murderer merely "for the promise of peace talks."

"For peace, we can agree to a release," he said. "But not just for a meeting."

"Of course I understand them," Frankenthal says. "They are also in pain."

Frankenthal and Misk have long experience with the mind-bending knowledge that the murderer of their loved one is free.

Haim Danino, the man who murdered Juma'a Misk, was arrested and put on trial. He was convicted — and sentenced to two years in jail and two years of community service.

Today, Danino and Misk live freely in the same city.

"No, it's not easy," Misk allows. "I see it as proof of the discrimination we face as non-Israelis. You can imagine how things would have turned out if a Jew had been killed by an Arab in a residential neighborhood in Jerusalem. We all know how that ends. This is why we need equality." Misk, who holds a Jordanian passport, hopes to become a citizen of the new state of Palestine.

Five men were involved in Arik Frankenthal's death. Three were killed in a later kidnapping. One is in jail. The last escaped capture and lives in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

"So what?" Frankenthal asks, weary of the question. "I'm not interested in them."

"We have to end this conflict — that is really the only thing worth struggling for. It’s the only thing that can give anyone any hope," he says. "Yes, my son was killed by Palestinians. But more than that, my son was killed by this conflict. He was killed because there is no peace."

Misk sees the matter from an unusually wide angle. He serves as a volunteer physician examining prisoners in Israeli confinement. "I see these guys in jail," he whispers, heaving his shoulders in despair. "Sometimes I'll see a guy who's been there since he was 18; now, he's 30. ... At some point, this just has to end."

Misk is an optimist. He remembers when it was illegal even to display the flag of Palestine in any area controlled by Israel; years ago, a young cousin was shot by Israeli soldiers in Hebron for raising the flag. "And now you see the flag everywhere. Last week, the Palestinian flag was displayed in the Knesset!" he says. "This is the direction we have to move in. There is no other choice."