This Arab man is against the release of Israel's Palestinian prisoners


An Israeli woman holds signs in front of pictures of Israelis who were killed by Palestinians militants during a Jerusalem protest against the release of Palestinian prisoners.



JERUSALEM — Easy-going and quiet-spoken, Orhan Turk, 37, is an unlikely hard-liner. But as diplomats work feverishly around the clock to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which would include the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Turk is fervently hoping they’ll fail.

Turk is an Arab Israeli. "We're Muslims," he says, "but just regular" — he prays but is not particularly observant.

Sabriya, his older sister, was Israel's heavy-weight boxing champion, "just like Mike Tyson," Turk says proudly. When he was 12 and she was 21, Sabriya was one of seven people killed by Mahmud and Muhammad Halaby, Gazan brothers dispatched by Hamas to Tel Aviv with explicit instructions to kill Arabs and Jews.

Sabriya was near home, at a kiosk known for its excellent toasted cheese sandwiches, when she heard a friend screaming in the apartment above. Sabriya went up, and was bludgeoned over the head with a 22 pound hammer and strangled till she died.

It later emerged that Mahmud Halaby was a Hamas operative, and that the murders in Jaffa had been ordered to expiate the dishonor brought about by his brother Muhammad’s collaboration with the Israeli secret service. Turk says "they were told that killing an Israeli Arab is as good as killing a Jew."

The crime was initially classified as merely "criminal," before the  families of Sabriya and her friend sued the State of Israel to be recognized as victims of terror. The Halaby brothers were sentenced to seven consecutive life terms.

A newspaper clipping provided by Orhan Turk shows his sister, Sabriya.

Turk is now a brand new father. A professional musician, he co-owns a recording studio in a Tel Aviv suburb. And neither he nor his family understand why the men convicted of killing Sabriya are now up for release as part of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"[Abbas] is asking for them both. What kind of business is it of his, anyway?" Turk says. "I don't really care who or what they are, Jews, Muslims, whatever: They killed Israeli citizens and they should serve out their term."

The Israeli government did not notify the Turk family that Sabriya's killers were on the list of prisoners scheduled for release. They found out from a journalist, and ever since "my mother has been crying every day," Turk says. His mother, Gunay, is 70. "She hates everyone connected to this government. She says that if it was Netanyahu's daughter, you bet no one would be released."

The politics of the prisoner release and, more broadly, the peace talks, is complicated, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under pressure from the American government to compromise and from right-wing Israelis to hold firm. Furthermore, as part of the last-minute jockeying to prevent the peace talks' collapse, both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides have significantly upped the ante.  

Late Tuesday, the Palestinian government applied for observer status at 15 UN institutions, throwing another wrench in the negotiations, and continued to insist upon the release of up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many more than the 26 originally scheduled to be freed in this fourth step of the peace talks. Among them, Ramallah is demanding the release of 14 Israeli Arabs convicted of "nationalistic crimes," meaning acts of terror in the name of the Palestinian cause.

The 4,700 Palestinian prisoners convicted of terror and held in Israeli jails have achieved mythic proportions in the popular imagination. The release of Israeli citizens, Abbas hopes, will be seen as a signal achievement on an international scale, legitimizing the Palestinian national struggle.

For Israel, the potential release of its own citizens presents a legal and political conundrum, in effect signaling that even the supremacy of the law can be flouted in the name of a political process that has yet to yield results.

Turk, who has no political allegiance, opposes the release on legal and moral grounds; he has no sentiments regarding his fellow Israeli Arabs also to be released. Turk suggests that peace with the Palestinians can be achieved using other enticements that do not threaten the rule of law, such as territorial exchanges or lessening limitations on Palestinian ties to international commerce.

"Releasing killers has nothing to do with this," he says.

Netanyahu is no fan of prisoner releases. But he cannot commit to evacuating Palestinian areas in the West Bank without losing his rightwing coalition partners — and, most likely, his government.

To take some of the sting out of the deal they are being asked to strike, the Israeli government is demanding from the United States the release of Jonathan Pollard, to Israelis as symbolic a figure as the Arab prisoners are for Palestinians. Pollard, an American Jew, was convicted in 1987 of passing classified documents to an Israeli handler. Every American administration of the past 20 years has refused Israeli entreaties to parole him.

Pollard's release may be Secretary of State John Kerry's last chance at a Hail Mary pass, but there's significant opposition to the move from the US intelligence community. 

If Pollard is released before Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation, which falls on April 14, Netanyahu hopes the symbolism and the ensuing jubilation will counter right-wing outrage about political concessions, allowing for the release of the Palestinian prisoner.

Esther Bar-Zion, the Turk family's attorney, says "if I was certain that by releasing terrorists we would be assured a real peace, I'd have to say the price might be worth it. But that is just not the case."