REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM --The release Tuesday of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit forced the nation to choose between two of its deepest ideals: protecting its security by refusing to negotiate with those it considers terrorists and never abandoning one of its own.
Israel has agreed to release 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for Shalit’s freedom, including nearly 300 who were serving life sentences for murder or terrorism. Although polls showed strong public support for the deal, members of victims' families said they felt betrayed.
Those divisions played out Monday outside the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, where groups representing the victims of Palestinian attacks mounted a last-ditch and ultimately futile attempt to block the releases. Competing protests vied for sidewalk space and public opinion.
On one side, Robi Damelin held a sign saying, "Peace defeats terror."
Damelin’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002. Seeing the joy of Shalit's mother, Aviva, Damelin said she was torn between "being so happy for Aviva and so sad for myself that my son isn't coming back." But she added, "Revenge won't bring my son back."
A few yards away, another group carried white flags symbolizing what they saw as Israel's surrender and a handwritten sign saying, "Terror wins."
"Releasing such arch-terrorists by the hundreds is disproportionate and unworthy," said Menachem Shapira, a 27-year-old student who lost a relative in a 1998 stabbing. “Imagine America would release those who planned the 9/11 attacks for a single captive. This is something no country can afford, certainly not with hundreds of terrorists who blew buses through the air and wiped out entire families."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the deal Tuesday, saying he “saw the need to return home someone whom the state of Israel had sent to the battlefield."
“I know very well that the pain of the families of the victims of terrorism is too heavy to bear," Netanyahu said. "It is difficult to see the miscreants who murdered their loved ones being released before serving out their full sentences."
"But I also knew that in the current diplomatic circumstances, this was the best agreement we could achieve, and there was no guarantee that the conditions which enabled it to be achieved would hold in the future. It could be that Gilad would disappear; to my regret, such things have already happened.”
-- Batsheva Sobelman and Edmund Sanders
Photos: Demonstrators in favor of and against the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange stand outside the Supreme Court building in Jersualem on Monday. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman/Los Angeles Times