U.S. senator sees Alan Gross as ‘closer’ to release

Alan Gross, an American government contractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state may be closer to returning home, in part because he has threatened to end his life if he is not released, a U.S. senator said on Tuesday.

The detention of Gross since December 2009 has increased tensions in already troubled U.S.-Cuban relations and prevented the historic adversaries from resolving wider differences.

[Will the Obama administration let Alan Gross die in a Cuban prison?]

Gross, 65, a former subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, is serving a 15-year sentence for illegally providing Internet equipment and service to Cuban Jewish groups under a U.S. program promoting political change that the Cuban government considers subversive.

Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and fellow Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, met with Gross for two hours on Tuesday at his hospital prison in Havana.

Asked if he was optimistic about progress toward Gross' release, Flake, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters, “I do feel we are closer there.”

“One, because of what Alan Gross has said himself. This is going to end one way or another. We've gone on five years and I think any benefit that the Cuban government may have seen (from holding him) has to have evaporated by now,” Flake said.

Gross has vowed not to spend his birthday next May in jail, threatening to end his own life, his wife and lawyer say.

However, Flake gave no indication the United States and Cuba were any closer to entering talks about Gross.

The United States has repeatedly called for Gross' release but rejected Cuban offers to enter talks that would link Gross to the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.

Once a plump 254 pounds (115 kg), Gross has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kg), developed severe hip pain and lost most of the vision in his right eye, lawyer Scott Gilbert, has said.

Gross' wife, Judy, has blamed U.S. President Barack Obama for failing to do enough to secure Gross' release.

Flake has long advocated that the United States end its 52-year-old economic embargo of Cuba and normalize relations. His influence may grow in January when the Republicans formally take over the majority in the U.S. Senate from the Democrats.

Udall also supports normalizing relations to create better business opportunities for U.S. companies.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown)

White House: Obama has not decided to release Israeli spy

President Barack Obama has not made a decision to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

“Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage and he is serving his sentence,” Carney said.

“I don't have any other update to provide you on Mr. Pollard's status. There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena and I am not going to get ahead of discussions that are under way,” he said.

Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Storey; Editing by Sandra Maler

Victims’ reps seek to block Palestinian prisoner release

A group representing Israeli victims of terrorism filed a petition to block the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Twenty-six prisoners expected to be set free early Tuesday as part of the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were transferred to Ofer Prison in preparation for their release.

On Monday, the organization Almagor, which represents victims of terrorism, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent the release of six of the prisoners, who are residents of eastern Jerusalem and hold Israeli identification cards.

The prisoners, who will be released at 1 a.m. Tuesday, were being examined by the Red Cross and by doctors, and their identities were being checked.

It is the third round of Palestinian prisoner releases since the American-backed peace negotiations began in July.

[Related: Israeli ministers endorse legislation to annex part of West Bank]

The list of prisoners was published late Saturday night on the Israel Prison Service website. Anyone who objects to the release of a prisoner must appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court within 48 hours.

The prisoners to be released committed their terrorist acts before the Oslo Accords, and have served at least 19 years in an Israeli prison, according to a statement released Saturday night by the Prime Minister’s Office. “If any of those to be released resume hostile activity they will be returned to serve the remainder of their sentences,” the statement said.

Twenty-three of the prisoners were convicted of killing Israeli soldiers, civilians or Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.

Demonstrations against the release including family members of terrorist victims have been held outside the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence for the last several days, with a large-scale protest and vigil planned for Monday night. While the group’s request to hold the large-scale protest beginning on Sunday night through the release was at first denied, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told demonstrators he would see to it that they be allowed to hold the protest.

Released Palestinian prisoners get P.A. payout, monthly stipend

Palestinian terrorists who were released from Israeli prisons in a goodwill gesture by Israel to restart the peace process were granted large payouts and monthly stipends from the Palestinian Authority.

Upon their release from Israeli prison, each of the prisoners received a $50,000 payment and granted a monthly salary, Israel Radio reported Monday. The prisoners were convicted of killing Israelis.

Some 52 Palestinians convicted of participating in terrorist attacks against Israelis before the 1993 Oslo Accords have been released in recent months. Another 52 are scheduled to be released over the nine months of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

A Palestinian official told Israel Radio that the money is to help the former prisoners restart their lives.

Release of Palestinian prisoners no threat, says former Shin Bet head

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, says he’s not concerned, from a security perspective, about Israel’s scheduled Oct. 30 release of 26 Palestinian prisoners who had been involved in terror attacks.

In an Oct. 27 interview with the Journal in Beverly Hills, Ayalon did not endorse the release but said, “It does not present any danger.”

“Most of them are sitting in our jails more than 30 years,” he said. “They are not part of the present terror infrastructure.”

Israel agreed to the release as a pre-condition to participating in American-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians. More than 100 terrorists will be released in four groups over the planned nine-month duration of the talks.

Ayalon, who was also a commander in Israel’s navy and is a former Knesset member for the Labor Party, was in Los Angeles to raise awareness for the University of Haifa as part of the American Society of the University of Haifa’s inaugural gala at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills on Oct. 27. He serves as chairman of the executive committee at the university.

He and Amos Shapira — former CEO of El Al and Cellcom and president of the university — sat down with the Journal on Sunday afternoon to discuss current events in Israel and their efforts at Haifa University.

Regarding possible upcoming negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the trim, fit Ayalon said he’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

 “I’m realistic,” Ayalon said, sternly and directly. “I don’t believe — and I hope I’m wrong — that negotiations will bring us any result.”


Palestinian prisoner release causes Israeli political stir

A planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners has provoked feuding within Israel's governing coalition, already under strain from U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The inmates, all of whom were convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after the first interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed 20 years ago, were due to go free after midnight on Tuesday.

Cutting short their life sentences has been particularly grating for many Israelis because prisoner releases were a Palestinian condition for reviving peace talks last August that few people on either side of the conflict believe will succeed.

In all, 104 long-serving prisoners will go free. A first group of 26 was let out two months ago in keeping with understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The release of terrorists in return for (Israeli chief negotiator) Tzipi Livni's dubious right to meet (Palestinian counterpart Saeb) Erekat is very grave,” the Jewish Home party, a far-right member of the government, said in statement at the weekend.

Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, then tried to get a proposal to freeze further prisoner releases past a ministerial committee, where members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party voted it down on Sunday.

“The picture is now clear: the government, unlike one of its member-parties, is acting in the national interest…this government is moving the peace process forward,” Livni, head of the small, centrist Hatnuah party, wrote on her Facebook page after Jewish Home's proposed law was rejected.

[Former Shin Bet head: Release of Palestinian prisoners no threat]

The squabbling did not end there. Bennett criticised Likud ministers, saying: “The release of terrorists is immoral, it weakens Israel and endangers its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in a democratic way”.

In an apparent attempt to appease Jewish Home and hardliners within Likud, government officials said new housing projects would be announced soon in West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.

Israeli political commentators suggested that Bennett, whose party has 12 of parliament's 120 seats, had latched on to the prisoners issue as a way to swing Netanyahu's traditional right-wing supporters his way and establish himself as an alternative leader for the camp.


Yuval Steinitz, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a Likud member, made clear in a radio interview on Monday that by agreeing to the prisoner releases, the government effectively had quashed a Palestinian demand to halt settlement building.

“The issue of freeing prisoners is certainly most painful for all of us. But strategically, the price of freezing construction in settlements would be much higher,” Steinitz said.

For Palestinians, who view settlements that Israel has erected on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as obstacles to a state, brethren jailed by Israel are heroes in a fight for independence.

On the other side of the divide, families of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks held a vigil outside Ofer prison in the West Bank, where the prisoners slated for release were being held.

And at a military cemetery in Jerusalem, opponents of the release placed black signs, with a drawing of a bloody hand, on graves.

“As far as we are concerned, your death was in vain,” read the placards, signed “Government of Israel.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan

Egyptian court orders Mubarak’s release

Ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak will leave jail as early as Thursday after a court ruling that jolted a divided nation already in turmoil seven weeks after the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Mubarak will then be put under house arrest, the prime minister's office said in a statement. The decision was authorised under Egypt's Emergency Law recently enacted under a security crackdown on Islamists, it added.

Citing a security source, the state news agency said that Mubarak would “likely” be transported to one of the state's vital installations or one of two military hospitals where he will be guarded under heavy security.

By keeping Mubarak under house arrest, Egyptian leaders may be trying to show they will not be too lenient with him to avoid angering the many Egyptians who held mass protests that led to the end of his iron rule in 2011.

Two groups of activists have already called for sit-ins in Cairo to protest his expected release.

Convening on Wednesday at the Cairo jail where Mubarak is held, the court ordered the release of the military man who ruled Egypt for 30 years until he was overthrown during the uprisings that swept the Arab world in early 2011.

Asked when his client would go free, Mubarak's lawyer, Fareed al-Deeb, told Reuters, “Maybe tomorrow”.

Mubarak, 85, was sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to prevent the killing of demonstrators. But a court accepted his appeal earlier this year and ordered a retrial.

The ailing ex-president probably has no political future, but some Egyptians were indignant at the court ruling, which state prosecutor Ahmed el-Bahrawi said could not be appealed.

“The army has brought back Mubarak's regime, the same regime,” said Guma Abdel Alim outside a bicycle shop in central Cairo. “Those who were elected by the people are now in prison.”

He was referring to a wide-scale security sweep on Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood that has netted many of its leaders.

Shopworker Rubi Abdel Azim said Mubarak had been the worst ruler in Egypt's history, but a passerby in a worn-out shirt disagreed. “He was the greatest president,” said Nagi Hassan.

Political turbulence has kept Egypt on edge for months. At least 900 people, including 100 soldiers and police, have been killed in a crackdown on Mursi supporters in the past week, making it the country's bloodiest internal episode in decades.

Mubarak's release could add to tensions in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood has accused the army of trying to bring back the old government.

“Today there was a decision to release him. Naturally that will cause a backlash in large segments in the Egyptian street,” said analyst Adel Soliman.


The Brotherhood has said it would never abandon efforts to restore Mursi to power, although a fierce state security crackdown appears to have hurt the group. In the past week, it has struggled to get people on the streets to protest.

Mursi's supporters called on Egyptians to hold “Friday of Martyrs” protests against the military takeover that ousted him.

A grouping calling itself the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy, which has been demanding Mursi's reinstatement, said in a statement, “We will remain steadfast on the road to defeating the military coup.”

The United States and the European Union are both reviewing aid to Cairo in light of the bloodshed, but Saudi Arabia, a foe of the Brotherhood, has promised to make up any shortfall.

The European Union stopped short of agreeing immediate cuts in financial or military assistance to Cairo, as the bloc's foreign ministers held emergency talks on Wednesday to find ways to help end violence in Egypt.

The decision acknowledges Europe's limited economic muscle in forcing Egypt's army-backed rulers and Mursi's supporters into a peaceful compromise.

It also reflects a concern that abruptly cutting aid could shut off dialogue with Cairo's military rulers and damage Europe's ability to mediate in any future negotiations to end the strife.

Egypt has said repeatedly it does not want foreign powers to interfere in its standoff with the Brotherhood.

“Egypt can never accept an interference in its sovereignty or the independence of its decisions or an interference in its internal affairs,” Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said in a statement issued after the EU talks.

“The only standard that rules Egypt's decisions is the supreme interest of the country and its national security.”

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling on Mubarak from the Brotherhood, whose leaders are mostly behind bars.

Mubarak is still being retried on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the revolt against him, but he has already served the maximum pretrial detention in that case.

The court ruling removed the last legal ground for his imprisonment in connection with a corruption case, following a similar decision in another corruption case on Monday. Mubarak will not be allowed to leave Egypt and his assets remain frozen.

Mubarak's two sons, Gamal and Alaa, along with former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, are still in prison, and Adly's lawyer said the ruling on Mubarak had no bearing on their cases.

Some of the liberal and secular politicians who backed the army's ousting of Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3, said they regretted Mubarak's release but that the judiciary's decision should be respected.

“His regime was lousy and he destroyed the country,” said Mohamed Abolghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, to which the army-appointed interim prime minister belongs.

Noting Mubarak's age and the jail time he has served, he said, “We should focus on building the country, establishing democracy and finishing the problem of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The government knows that if Mubarak is freed, there will be public outrage, but a court decision is a court decision.”

Khaled Dawoud, spokesman of the liberal Dostour Party, said the trials of the ex-president and his associates had all been flawed because the judiciary was ill-equipped to deal with cases related to Mubarak's rule, resulting in a series of acquittals.

“It was a faulty process from the beginning,” he said.

The relatively muted response from Mubarak's non-Islamist opponents may reflect a reluctance to rock the boat following the army's removal of Mursi, which they had endorsed.

The generals say they were responding to the will of the people after vast demonstrations organised by liberals and leftists demanding Mursi's ouster. They have installed an interim administration to oversee a road map back to democracy.


The authorities now portray their quarrel with the Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organised political force, as a fight against terrorism and are jailing its leaders. They detained the group's “general guide”, Mohamed Badie, in Cairo on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which along with Kuwait have promised Egypt $12 billion in aid since Mursi's ouster, have frowned on Mubarak's detention all along. Arab diplomats said the conservative Gulf monarchies had lobbied for the release of a man they once valued as a strong regional ally.

Mubarak's jailing and trial, when he appeared in a courtroom cage, also affronted some Egyptian officers. One colonel, who asked not to be named, said the treatment of the former supreme military commander had “tarnished the army's image”.

Lobna Moneib, spokeswoman of the leftist Popular Current movement, said the court ruling posed a problem. “We think he is guilty and have called for him to be tried by revolutionary courts,” she said, advocating such trials for all Mubarak-era officials as well as for Mursi and his Brotherhood colleagues.

The United States, a close ally of Egypt since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, said on Tuesday that the crackdown on protesters could influence U.S. aid. It denied reports it had already suspended assistance.

At issue is the future of about $1.23 billion in U.S. military assistance and $241 million in economic aid to Egypt.

Western nations were uneasy during Mursi's year in power, when he rammed through an Islamist-tinged constitution.

Washington has not denounced the army takeover as a “coup”, which under U.S. law would force a suspension of aid. The ensuing bloodshed, however, has dismayed the West.

U.S. Senator John McCain, a former Republican presidential nominee, said on Wednesday, “The slaughter of hundreds of Egyptians in the street is appalling to all of us.”

He said U.S. aid should be conditioned on a change in the constitution and scheduling of elections as soon as possible. “The present government is representative of no one,” he said.

The arrest of Badie, the Brotherhood's leader, is part of a wave of detentions among the upper echelons of the organisation.

Murad Ali, a media adviser to the Brotherhood's political party, and Safwat Hegazy, a fiery preacher, were arrested while trying to flee the country, state media reported on Wednesday.

The Brotherhood said the crackdown would prove futile.

“The putschists think that arresting the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and marring their image in the media will make Egyptians bow and give in to the coup,” it said.

“They have killed thousands, wounded thousands, arrested thousands but the (people) are continuing in their peaceful revolution, rejecting the coup and military rule.”

Additional reporting by Cairo bureau, Justyna Pawlak and John O'Donnell in Brussels, Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Michael Georgy, Will Waterman, Alastair Macdonald and Peter Cooney

Israel should not release prisoners for peace

Releasing Palestinian prisoners as a political gesture erodes Israel’s democratic fabric and challenges the country’s core sense of justice. Ironically, it is the dissemination of justice and the people of Israel’s faith in that justice that has kept their society together. 

The citizens of a democratic country expect and believe that evil will be punished and that good will prevail. They believe that the government they elected protects them and ensures that those who murder do not go free. The exception to that expectation occurs only when the murderer is exonerated or pardoned. And when pardons do come, society takes notice and asks if the person really did the heinous act. The pardon is the safety valve that corrects the mistakes of justice.

Israel, like all democracies, relies on a series of check and balances. 

The prime minister of Israel and his cabinet are legally responsible for foreign affairs and for the safety and security of the state. About that there is no question. That ruling, just issued by the Israeli Supreme Court, paved the way for convicted Palestinian terrorists to be transferred to Gaza and to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The court ruled against the challenge of releasing the prisoners. They said that the prime minister had absolute authority in the matter. 

[PRO: Israel should release prisoners for peace]

Here is the problem: These were neither military prisoners nor security prisoners. The released prisoners and their fellow cell and soul mates awaiting imminent release were tried and convicted in civilian courts. And even if terror and nationalistic agendas were part of their collective diabolical mindset, all of these prisoners, each and every one, was tried for and convicted of murder and/or attempted murder.

Not one of these prisoners was pardoned. Not one was granted amnesty. They were all simply released in a political deal.

[Related: Who Israel released]

Justice, judgment and punishment were shoved aside. Checks and balances were thrown out. The political side trampled on the judicial branch. Had these prisoners been under military jurisdiction, I would not have liked the decision, but I would understand it. The military convicts and frees according to different standards. If these were high-security prisoners, I could understand that, too. But they are not.

Look at crimes perpetrated by some of these 26 released murderers, 14 of whom are now at home in Gaza, the others released to roam the West Bank: 

• Abu Moussa Salam Ali Atiya had been jailed since 1994 for the murder of Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg. His victim was born in Poland in 1927, and most of his family was deported to and murdered in Sobibor. Rotenberg and his brother were sent to a labor camp. He survived the Nazis. And then, on March 29, 1994, as Rothberg knelt down to lay a floor he was axed to death by two Arab laborers. One of them was Ali Atiya. 

• Kor Mattawa Hamad Faiz had been in jail since 1985 for the murder of Menahem Dadon and attempted murder of Salomon Abukasis. 

• Sha’at Azat Shaban Ata was convicted of helping murder a 51-year-old woman named Simcha Levi. Levi made her living transporting Palestinian day laborers from the Gaza Strip to work in Jewish settlements. In March 1993, she picked up three men disguised as women. They were her murderers; they beat and stabbed Levi to death.

• Salah Ibrahim Ahmad Mughdad was jailed since 1993 for the murder of Israel Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum was born in Poland in 1921, survived the Holocaust, and came to Israel in 1957 and bought a farm. After a life of work in agriculture, he retired and became a night watchman at a small hotel in the seaside city Netanya. Tenenbaum was murdered on the job.

Many of the victims were older and Holocaust survivors. Their murderers are now free. Twelve of the victims were Arab. Their murderers, too, are now free. In the coming days and weeks, more murderers will be set free. The sides have just begun talking. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, has already achieved victory. 

Now we wait to see what emerges at the negotiating table. We wait to see if anything emerges at the negotiating table. It might; it might not. Whatever the outcome, these released murderers will not be returning to an Israeli prison.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

PRO/CON: Should Israel release prisoners for peace?

PRO: Israel should release prisoners for peace

by Yael Maizel, J Street

The headline jumped out at me as I opened the paper last Sunday to read the news: “Netanyahu releases 104 Palestinian prisoners to re-launch peace talks.” As a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, I have frequently thought about the difficult concessions and tough decisions that Israel will face along the way to peace, understanding that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require real sacrifice and compromise. But the news hit particularly close to home that day, reminding me exactly how personal and painful these sacrifices can be.

In September 1993 I was 11 years old. I remember watching the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with my sixth grade Jewish Day School class. I remember my parents who grew up in Jerusalem amidst the war and turmoil of the 60s and 70s, explaining to my brother and I what a historic moment we were witnessing.

Read more.

CON: Israel should not release prisoners for peace

by Micah D. Halpern

Releasing Palestinian prisoners as a political gesture erodes Israel’s democratic fabric and challenges the country’s core sense of justice. Ironically, it is the dissemination of justice and the people of Israel’s faith in that justice that has kept their society together. 

The citizens of a democratic country expect and believe that evil will be punished and that good will prevail. They believe that the government they elected protects them and ensures that those who murder do not go free. The exception to that expectation occurs only when the murderer is exonerated or pardoned. And when pardons do come, society takes notice and asks if the person really did the heinous act. The pardon is the safety valve that corrects the mistakes of justice.

Read more.

Who Israel released

Just after midnight yesterday, 26 Palestinian prisoners were released by Israel as part of a confidence-building measure aimed at bolstering renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

Per Israel’s Government Press Office, the following is a list of the prisoners and their crimes. Virtually all were directly involved in the murders of Israeli, and the majority were serving life sentences.

Fayez Khur: Aged 51, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On May 10, 1983, he murdered Menahem Dadon in the Gaza Strip, and was involved in the murder of Salomon Abukasis in the Gaza Strip on February 14, 1983. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Salah Mugdad: Aged 47, a Fatah activist from Kfar Bracha in Samaria in the West Bank. On June 14, 1993, he murdered Israel Tenenbaum, a guard at the Sirens Hotel in Netanya. Sentenced to life imprisonment, which was then commuted to a 32-year sentence.

Samir Na’neesh: Aged 46, a Fatah activist from Nablus in the West Bank. On February 14, 1989 he murdered a soldier, Binyamin Meisner, by throwing a building block at him in the Kasbah in Nablus. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Yusef Irshaid: Aged 45, a Fatah activist from Jenin in the West Bank. On June 15, 1992, he took part in the murder of a Druze Israeli citizen, Mufid Cana’an. In the years 1991-92 he took part in the murder of three Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel. He also planned a car bomb attack in Afula and made attempts to kidnap a soldier. Sentenced to five life imprisonments.

Mustafa al-Haj: Aged 45, a Fatah activist from Brukin in the West Bank. On June 17, 1989, he stabbed Steven Frederick Rosenfeld to death with a knife close to Ariel. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Salameh Musleh: Aged 44, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On May 20, 1991, he took part in the murder of Reuven David in Petach Tikva, when he and his accomplice beat him to death. Sentenced to life imprisonment, which was then commuted to a 30-year sentence.

Atiyeh abu Musa: Aged 42, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On March 29, 1993, he murdered Isaac Rotenberg with an axe on a building site in Bat Yam. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Salah Mukled: Aged 40, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On March 29, 1993, he stabbed Yeshayahu Deutsch to death with a knife in the hothouses of Kfar Yam. In that same year, he also carried out shooting attacks. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mohemed Sawalha: Aged 40, a Fatah activist from the village of Azmut in West Bank. On December 2, 1990, he took part in a stabbing on a bus in Ramat Gan, in which Baruch Heisler was murdered and three other passengers were injured. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Atef Sha’ath: Aged 49, a Popular Front activist from the Gaza Strip. He collaborated in the murder of Simcha Levy on March 12, 1993. Sentenced to 29 years imprisonment.

Yusef Abed al-Al: Aged 42, a Popular Front activist from the Gaza Strip. On April 18, 1993, he took part in the murder of Ian Feinberg in the Gaza Strip. On July 3, 1993, he murdered a Palestinian who was suspected of collaboration. Sentenced to 22 years imprisonment.

Midhat Barbakh: Aged 38, a Popular Front and Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On January 21, 1994, he stabbed his employer, Moshe Beker, a citrus grower from Rishon Letzion, killing him. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ali Rai: Aged 56, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On January 21, 1994, he murdered Morris Eizenstat in Kfar Saba. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mohamed Nashbat: Aged 52, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On September 20, 1990, he took part in the stoning and lynch of a soldier, Amnon Pomerantz, in al Burej in the Gaza Strip. Sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.

Samir Murtaji: Aged 42, a Hamas activist from the Gaza Strip. In the years 1993-94, he murdered four Palestinians who were suspected of collaboration. He was also involved in kidnapping other Palestinians suspected of collaboration. Sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

Hosni Sawalha: Aged 39, a Fatah activist from Azmut, a village in the West Bank. He took part in a stabbing on a bus in Ramat Gan on December 2, 1990, in which Baruch Heisler was murdered and three other passengers were injured. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Faraj Rimahi: Aged 48, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. Murdered Avraham Kinsler on June 6, 1992 and planned to murder more Israeli citizens. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ala Eddin Abu Sitteh: Aged 43, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On December 31, 1993, he took part in the murder of Haim Weizman and David Dadi in Ramle. After stabbing them both to death with knives, the murderers desecrated their victims’ bodies. Sentenced to two life imprisonments.

Ayman Abu Sitteh: Aged 42, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On December 31, 1993, he took part in the murder of Haim Weizman and David Dadi in Ramle. After stabbing them both to death with knives, the murderers desecrated their victims’ bodies. Sentenced to two life imprisonments.

Esmat Mansour: Aged 36, a Democratic Front activist from Deir Jarir, a village in the West Bank. On October 29, 1993, he aided the terrorist cell that murdered Haim Mizrahi in a chicken farm in Beit El. He led the murderers to a hiding place behind the chicken coops, brought rope to tie up the victim and helped them load the dead body into the trunk of the car. Sentenced to 22 years imprisonment.

Khaled Asakreh: Aged 41, a Fatah activist from Rafida, a village in the West Bank. On April 29, 1991, he murdered Annie Ley, a French tourist in Bethlehem. Sentenced to life imprisonment.

Nihad Jundiyeh: Aged 40, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On July 14 1989, he took part in the murder of Zalman Shlein in Gan Yavne. During questioning, he admitted to planning two more attacks that were not carried out: a stabbing in Gan Yavne and forcing a bus off a cliff. Sentenced to 25.5 years imprisonment.

Mohamed Hamdiyeh: Aged 41, a Fatah activist from the Gaza Strip. On July 14, 1989 he took part in the murder of Zalman Shlein in Gan Yavne. Sentenced to 25.5 years imprisonment.

Jamil Abed al-Nabi: Aged 50, a Hamas activist from the Hebron area in the West Bank. He was involved in planning and carrying out the shooting in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron that occurred on October 25, 1992. In the attack, an IDF soldier, Shmuel Gersh, was killed and another soldier wounded. Sentenced to 21 years imprisonment.

Taher Zaboud: an Islamic Jihad activist from Silat al Harithiya, a village in the West Bank. He took part in a shooting that occurred on September 22, 1992 near the settlement Gadish. He was also involved in an unsuccessful attempt to murder a police officer in Umm al-Fahm. Sentenced to 21 years imprisonment.

Borhan Sabiah: Aged 42, a Fatah activist from Rai, a village in the West Bank. He was convicted of murdering six suspected collaborators. Sentenced to six life imprisonments.

Israel should release prisoners for peace

The headline jumped out at me as I opened the paper last Sunday to read the news: “Netanyahu releases 104 Palestinian prisoners to re-launch peace talks.” As a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, I have frequently thought about the difficult concessions and tough decisions that Israel will face along the way to peace, understanding that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require real sacrifice and compromise. But the news hit particularly close to home that day, reminding me exactly how personal and painful these sacrifices can be.

In September 1993 I was 11 years old. I remember watching the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with my sixth grade Jewish Day School class. I remember my parents who grew up in Jerusalem amidst the war and turmoil of the 60s and 70s, explaining to my brother and I what a historic moment we were witnessing. The world was full of hope that an end to the conflict was in sight. Not even a full month later, on October 9 of that year, we lost my cousin Eran in a devastating terror attack. He was 23 years old, had just finished his army services and was headed to college in a few weeks. He and his best friend Dror decided to take one last hike before the semester began. They stopped at a swimming hole in Wadi Qelt, outside of Jerusalem where they were ambushed and murdered by masked gunmen.

My cousin’s death underscored for me how closely intertwined the story of the state of Israel is with my own family’s personal narrative. From my Sephardic grandmother whose family settled in the old city of Jerusalem more than a century ago, to my paternal great-grandparents who arrived as part of the Second Aliyah, and lastly to my maternal grandparents for whom Israel was a place of refuge after fleeing the Holocaust, every photo in our family album depicts another chapter in the state’s history and development. Losing Eran was perhaps the most painful chapter in this story. For the last 15 years, when I visit Mount Herzl to see the graves of Israeli statesman and Zionist leaders like Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, I also make a stop at the monument for victims of terror to lay a stone over Eran’s name.  

[CON: Israel should not release prisoners for peace]

My experience is unfortunately not a unique one. Nearly every Israeli today knows a family that has lost a loved one in the violence of terror or war. And while my cousin’s murderers will not be set free during this round of prisoner releases — because they were never caught — the announcement touches a raw nerve. It’s reminder of the terrible price we have paid in these years of conflict. However, it is precisely because of this price that we know how much we stand to lose without peace.

The resumption of diplomatic negotiations are just the starting line for what will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process with more tough decisions along the way. But we know that for Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish homeland, there is no choice but to pursue this path.

In his open letter to the Israeli people, Netanyahu explained that these painful concessions were necessary for Israel’s long-term national interests, writing, “From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country's well-being.”

The anger and frustration around the announcement are understandable.  I was personally troubled that the Prime Minister decided the prisoner release was politically the “easiest” to make as a first step, rather than agreeing to a settlement freeze or negotiations based on the 1967 lines.

Ultimately though, these abstract “long-term national interests” have a direct bearing on the lives of ordinary families like mine. And, at the same they are larger than any one individual or their family. They are about the needs and desires of people on both sides of the Green Line to live in peace and security, dignity and freedom. And it is about the future that we as Jews see for the state of Israel. Without a negotiated two-state solution to this conflict, we will be faced with an even more painful choice between the country’s Jewish and democratic character.

This October will mark 20 years since Eran’s passing and as we head into this difficult milestone, I find myself asking what this next chapter in Israel’s history will bring for me and my family. The recent news out of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remind me of how challenging the road ahead will be, as old wounds are reopened and painful compromises are made. But my cousin’s legacy has also taught me that inaction is not an option; there is simply too much at stake.

Yael Maizel is J Street's Southwest Field Director.

Wiesenthal officials ask Ecuador to intercede for Alan Gross

Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center met with Ecuadorian authorities to seek their support in asking Cuba to release American prisoner Alan Gross.

The meetings came on the sidelines of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Latin American gathering of Jewish communities in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center's Latin American director, and Dr. Shimon Samuels, its director of international relations, in separate meetings with Ecuador's deputy justice minister, Carmen Simone Lasso, and the Justice Ministry's legal adviser, Marco Prado, requested “the humanitarian intervention of Ecuador — in view of its close bilateral relations — to urge the Cuban authorities for an early release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross.”

Widder told JTA that Lasso did not comment on future steps regarding the Gross case. Lasso expressed her support for Holocaust education in Ecuador, he said.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency on International Development.

“We believe that President Rafael Correa Delgado is best-placed to convince Havana to make a humanitarian gesture,” Samuels and Widder told Ecuadorian officials.

On Sunday, more than 500 rabbis urged the release of Alan Gross, citing the possibility that he has a cancerous growth, based on a recent assessment of his medical records by a U.S. radiologist.

Also, the Wiesenthal Center expressed its concern at the growing influence of Iran in Ecuador and its ALBA bloc partners of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

“This represents a potential danger of Iranian-supported Hezbollah terrorist networks abusing Ecuador’s hospitality as a springboard for expansion throughout South America,” Samuels said.

ALBA is an international organization based on the idea of social, political and economic cooperation among Latin American and the Caribbean countries.

U.S. senators ask Cuban president to release Gross

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators asked Cuban President Raul Castro to release jailed American contractor Alan Gross.

Led by Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), 44 senators in a letter to Castro called Gross’ imprisonment a “major obstacle” to bilateral relations.

“Mr. Gross’s ongoing detention in your country presents a major obstacle to any further actions to improve our bilateral relations,” said the letter, which was dated Sept. 24.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community.

Earlier this month, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official rejected claims by Gross’ wife, Judy, that he was in ill health and said Cuba was willing to negotiate his release with U.S. officials.

Gross reportedly has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest and his family says he is suffering from degenerative arthritis. His mother is dying and one of his daughters has cancer.

Gilad Shalit marks first birthday since being freed

Gilad Shalit marked his first birthday since being freed from Hamas captivity.

Shalit turned 26 on Tuesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Shalit to wish him a happy birthday.

“This is a particularly happy birthday,” Netanyahu reportedly told Shalit. “It is a birthday of freedom. The entire Israeli nation wishes you mazal tov.”

The Shalit family plans a private birthday celebration over the weekend, Shalit’s grandfather Zvi Shalit told Army Radio.

Shalit was released last October by Hamas after more than five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Knesset members urge Romney to release Pollard

Knesset leaders sent a letter to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urging him to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard if elected president.

The letter, according to The Jerusalem Post, was similar to letters sent to former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It asks Romney for the “immediate release” of Pollard, who was convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel, upon Romney’s taking office.

Every non-Arab party leader in Knesset signed the letter.

“We, the heads of the Knesset factions, the elected representatives of the citizens of Israel, want to bring a deeply painful issue to your attention, the plight of Jonathan Pollard,” the letter stated, according to the Post. “It is not disputed that Jonathan Pollard broke the law and he deserved to be punished.

“Nevertheless, the citizens of Israel are united in their request for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds. He has served nearly 27 years in prison and his health has deteriorated to a point that is life-threatening.”

Romney has said that he is “open to examining” the Pollard issue, though he did not mention Pollard during his recent trip to Israel.

Pollard supporters call Clinton’s remarks a ‘slap in the face’

Supporters of Jonathan Pollard called Hillary Clinton’s remarks rejecting his possible clemency “a resounding slap in the face” to Israel’s leaders and its people.

“With respect to Mr. Pollard, he was convicted of spying in 1987, he was sentenced to life in prison, he is serving that sentence, and I do not have any expectations that that is going to change,” Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, said Monday night during a news conference in Jerusalem in answer to a reporter’s question about Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel.

The Committee to Bring Jonathan Pollard Home and Justice for Jonathan Pollard said in a statement issued Tuesday that Clinton’s remarks “stunned her Israeli hosts and marred the warm reception she received from the Israeli public.” The statement noted Pollard’s “unprecedented 27 years in prison.”

Pollard supporters expressed anger in the statement that Clinton offered no explanation “as to why the U.S. wants to keep the aging and very ill Pollard in
prison forever” and called for an official response to numerous formal requests for clemency for Pollard from Clinton’s boss, President Obama. 

Clinton, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2000, said that she had concerns about “due process issues regarding Jonathan Pollard’s sentence.”

Pollard has been at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina since his arrest in 1986. A succession of presidents has refused to grant clemency to Pollard since he was sentenced to life in 1987.

The calls to release Pollard, who is said to be in ill health, have intensified in recent months, with pleas from lawmakers and former top officials of both parties.

After Peres medal, pleas for Pollard persist

The Washington festivities honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres have come and gone, without an assurance of clemency for jailed spy Jonathan Pollard.

But while Pollard’s 27th year in federal prison continues, so do calls for his release.

“While I certainly don’t condone what he did—no question, he did wrong, and was paid to do it—still, he should not be treated neither more leniently nor worse than anybody else who provided information to a friendly government,” U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has visited Pollard in prison twice, said in an interview with JNS.org. “It’s gone from bad to worse. After [27] years, it’s enough.”

Pollard’s advocates in Congress and elsewhere say his life sentence resulting from a conviction of spying for Israel—without intent to harm the United States—is disproportionate to his crime. Prior to his June 13 private meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Peres—the Medal of Freedom awardee—said he would request clemency for Pollard. Speaking from Washington, he told Israel’s Channel 2 that Obama “has humanitarian authority” and therefore “can mull considerations [for Pollard] that the courts did not.”

However, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, at a briefing for reporters the day of the Medal of Freedom presentation, quashed all discussion of a possible clemency. “Our position has not changed and will not change today…I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes,” Carney said.

A request for the commutation of Pollard’s sentence was the subject of a June 11 bi-partisan letter spearheaded Engel and U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ). The letter appeals to Obama, saying “There is no doubt that [Pollard] has paid a heavy price, and, from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence, we believe he has been imprisoned long enough…We join our voices to those who see clemency as an act of compassion justified on humanitarian grounds and for purposes of fairness and equity.”

In 1985, Pollard had pleaded guilty to one count of “conspiracy to delivery national defense information to a foreign government” and was set to receive “a substantial number of years in prison.” While the prosecutor in this judicial process (there was no trial) did not technically ask for a life sentence, former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger did, and Judge Aubrey E. Robinson acquiesced.

Engel told JNS.org that the government “double crossed” Pollard. “In making a plea bargain,” said Engel, “you do so with the expectation that it will be implemented.”

Why is Engel appealing for Pollard’s release specifically at this time? “Pollard is in ill health,” Engel said. “It’s time to commute his sentence to time served. It’s a mistake for it not to have happened earlier—now we should re double our efforts and keep trying.”

The collaboration of Engel, a Democrat, and the Republican legislator Smith is an example of bipartisan support for Pollard. “It’s important for us [Democrats] to have a good relationship with people on the other side [of the political spectrum]—we can come together with them on Israel and things like the Pollard issue,” Engel said. “Chris Smith does not play it safe. He will stick his neck out for what he believes is right.”

Engel called the Pollard situation “a thorn in the side of relations between the U.S. and Israel, one successfully used by Israel bashers to drive a wedge.”

“Having Pollard in jail is like a festering sore,” he said. “It’s time to heal that sore.”

Engel said every recent president—Clinton, Bush, and now Obama—has been thwarted from considering the release of Pollard because of strong opposition from the intelligence and military communities. Obama may find it “easier to do nothing” based on the history of his predecessors’ inaction, Engel said.

“Whatever [Obama] does will be controversial and bound to result in sharp disagreement,” Engel said. “To do anything in an election year is a difficult and tricky, unpredictable situation.”

Opinions about the appropriateness of releasing Pollard have changed significantly. The former head of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, now support clemency. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who is believed to have seen the Caspar Weinberger memo, says nothing in Pollard’s file justifies denying him clemency.

“No one is able to tell us any reason why it should not be granted,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive director of the National Council of Young Israel, told JNS.org.

Lerner, who has been a consistent voice lobbying for Pollard’s release for more than 15 years, said he “is encouraged” by Carney’s use of the word “today” in his statement about Pollard.

“No one expected the keys on the spot,” Lerner said. “It’s part of a process.”

Lerner emphasized that Pollard is seriously ill and not receiving adequate medical care. “A man’s life is at stake… The bottom line is, someone tell us why he is still in jail? What relevant information could he have?  What could be top-secret 27 later?” he said.

The rabbi last visited Pollard in May, and told JNS.org that Pollard is “not well” and suffering from numerous serious illnesses, including kidney problems and diabetes.

“These are medical issues that won’t be solved in prison,” Lerner said.

Although no letter addressed to the president regarding Pollard’s case has ever been directly answered, Lerner stressed that “the Jewish community must join together and write” on Pollard’s behalf.

“We accept that he committed a serious crime, that he should spend several years in prison, but not be there for life,” Lerner said. “We are calling on the president and every person who cares about justice to end this injustice. President Obama just gave the Medal of Freedom to a man he respects. That man has expressed a wish for Pollard’s freedom. You would think that when the President of an allied country asks for a favor, one would think that wish would be granted.”

White House won’t budge on Pollard release, despite Peres plea

The U.S. stance denying clemency to Jonathan Pollard remains the same for now, a White House spokesman said, despite the plea by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“Our position has not changed and will not change today,” Jay Carney said Wednesday. “And I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of extremely serious crimes.”

A succession of presidents has refused to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who spied for Israel, since he was sentenced to life in 1987. 

Peres, in Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama on Wednesday, said he would ask Obama in a private meeting before the ceremony to consider granting clemency to Pollard.

Carney delivered his comments to the media at the midday daily briefing, just before Obama and Peres met.

The calls to release Pollard, who is said to be in ill health, have intensified in recent months, with pleas from lawmakers and former top officials of both parties.

Ronald Rodgers, the pardon attorney of the U.S. Department of Justice, has told those pleading for Pollard’s release that his case is under consideration, at the same time saying that he cannot predict when a decision will be made.

In first, bipartisan House letter seeks Pollard’s release

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are joining forces for the first time in an effort to secure Jonathan Pollard’s release.

A bipartisan letter is circulating in the U.S. House of Representatives soliciting signatures on a letter to President Obama asking him to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served. The “Dear Colleague” letter is signed by veteran House members Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.).

“What Mr. Pollard did was wrong. He broke the law and deserved to be punished for his crime,” the letter to Obama reads. “Mr. Pollard has now served more than 25 years in prison, many of which in solitary confinement, for his actions. There is no doubt that he has paid a heavy price, and, from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence, we believe he has been imprisoned long enough.”

The letter comes as Israeli President Shimon Peres visits the United States, where he is scheduled to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama on Wednesday. Peres said he would raise clemency for Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who was sentenced to life in 1987 for spying for Israel, when he meets Obama prior to receiving the honor.

“I will speak one on one with the president about Pollard,” Peres told reporters after arriving Monday ahead of the Medal of Freedom ceremony on Wednesday. “The Israeli president also has the power of clemency—I understand all the problems associated with clemency. Clemency is not an extension of the judicial process, it includes considerations beyond and outside this area, and I’ll explain this to the president. I expect that I will explain my position, beyond that I can’t say—I don’t know what his considerations are. I intend on focusing on the humanitarian aspect.”

Efforts to persuade Obama to extend clemency to Pollard have intensified in recent months. Pollard is said to be in poor physical condition.

Meanwhile, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich told Israel Radio on Monday that American officials suspect that there were other spies besides Pollard.

“The Americans suspect that Jonathan Pollard was not alone, that there were other Pollards and that Israel, despite all its promises, did not reveal all its cards,” he said, adding that in its sentence of Pollard, the U.S. was punishing Israel and “expressed their anger more with Israel than with Pollard.”

Numerous American leaders, who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have called for a commutation of Pollard’s sentence.

Meanwhile, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. cited Pollard’s imprisonment in accusing America of hypocrisy for condemning her country’s 33-year prison sentence for a Pakistani citizen who helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden.

“How can the country that is holding Jonathan Pollard in prison for close to 30 years claim that we do not have the right to judge a spy in our own country as we see fit?” Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., said during an interview over the weekend with CBS. “The country that put Jonathan Pollard away for spying for its close ally, Israel, should understand that other countries, too, punish those who spy for an erstwhile ally.”

Family of slain Hamas leader wants to halt Israeli film’s release

The family of a Hamas leader assassinated in a hotel room in Dubai is trying to halt the release of an Israeli movie about the incident.

“Kidon,” which means spear, is set to be released in France and Israel in about six months. It stars Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli as a Mossad agent.

A cousin of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was slain in a Dubai hotel in January 2010, told The Associated Press that the movie is a “Zionist conspiracy” to defame the former Hamas leader.

It is not clear where the Mabhouh family will file a lawsuit seeking to block the film’s release, according to the AP.

Israeli agents are suspected of using foreign passports to travel undercover to Dubai in order to assassinate al-Mabhouh. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied any involvement in the slaying, but Dubai police released hotel camera footage showing the assassination team wearing disguises.

Palestinian terrorists released in Shalit swap return to terror

Israel’s Shin Bet security service highlighted two Palestinian terrorists released in the swap for Gilad Shalit who have resumed terrorist activity.

One of the terrorists, who was deported to Gaza, wrote guidelines for future abductions, including “The captive should not be hidden in remote locations, caves, or woodland unless it’s a dead body or the captive’s head.” He also tried to recruit young Palestinian residents of the West Bank to kidnap Israelis.

A second terrorist was sentenced to 44 months in prison last month for arms trafficking. He also must serve his prison term for his original offense.

Some 1,077 Palestinians in Israeli jails were released six months ago in a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas in order to secure the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive in Gaza for more than five years.

Eight Palestinian prisoners released as part of the swap for Shalit have been arrested again for participating in terrorist activity, Haaretz reported.

Alan Gross revelations could hamper campaign for his release

For the Jews of Cuba, it was the ultimate Internet connection.

The high-tech equipment that U.S. contractor Alan Gross brought with him to Cuba in 2009 to help connect local Jews to the Internet reportedly included a SIM card that makes it almost impossible to track satellite signals and is generally unavailable to civilians, even in the United States.

That was one of the revelations in an Associated Press report earlier this month that has exacerbated concerns that Cuba will hang tough on its stated determination not to release Gross, a 62-year old Maryland Jew who was in Cuba to do work for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for crimes described as “acts against the integrity of the state.”

Yet the AP report, apparently based on mission reports by Gross, helps reinforce the claim that Gross, his family, his employer and the State Department have made all along—that Gross’ mission was straightforward and not at all nefarious: He wanted to hook up Cuba’s Jews with their brethren worldwide.

The AP article “doesn’t change what we’re doing,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We never argued the matters that were raised” regarding Gross’ activities, he said.

According to the AP story, Gross understood the dangers he faced. That is evident both in his reports—he called his enterprise “risky business in no uncertain terms” in one memo—and his actions. He recruited Jewish tourists to help bring in the devices, and the most damaging evidence, according to AP, was the sophisticated SIM card he has in his possession.

Yet the story also makes clear that Gross, who was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009, hardly fits the profile of a spy, which is how Cuban President Raul Castro described him.

“Alan Gross was working as a contractor for the U.S. government to promote democracy in Cuba,” said William Daroff, the Washington director for Jewish Federations of North America. “He was convicted by a court in a country that does not respect the rule of law. His now over two years in a Cuban prison is unjust and we demand the Cuban government release him and that the American government use all of its influence to bring him home.”

The Jewish Federations and the local Jewish Community Relations Council in Washington have taken the lead in pushing publicly for Gross’ release, including petitions and vigils outside the offices of Cuban representatives.

“It hasn’t had any impact at all, if anything it’s only strengthened peoples’ resolve,” Ronald Halber, the director of the Washington JCRC said, of the AP story. The JCRC is set to launch on Wednesday a petition at FreeAlanGross.com urging Pope Benedict XVI to make the case for Gross’ release when he visits Cuba next month.

Gross is said to be ill, having lost 100 pounds of the 250 pounds he weighed before his arrest. His daughter and mother have suffered bouts with cancer during his incarceration.

Those close to the case say privately that the AP’s revelations would not be news to the Cuban authorities. However, they are concerned that making them public will inhibit any Cuban willingness to release Gross.

The AP story describes Gross’ mission as setting up hundreds of Cubans—particularly the island’s 1,500 Jews—with WiFi hotspots for unrestricted Internet access as part of the democracy promotion by USAID, a State Department program. The story depicts Gross’ interactions as primarily with Cuba’s Jews.

“He did nothing wrong other than to connect peaceful non-dissident Jewish communities to the Internet,” said Steven O’Connor, the spokesman for Development Alternatives Inc., the USAID contractor that hired Gross.

Gross’ wife, Susan, addressed the AP story’s claims for the first time on Sunday in a breakfast with congregants at Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore.

“To suggest that Alan had any ulterior motive other than to help Cuba’s small Jewish community improve its access to information through the Internet and Intranet is categorically false,” she said in prepared remarks shared exclusively with JTA. “Unfortunately, in countries like Cuba, the free flow of information is forbidden, and therefore it should come as no surprise that Alan had to be careful and discreet while he was in Cuba.

She added, “That members of the media and the blogosphere continue to debate and analyze Alan’s work—a discussion in which the participants openly speculate as to his motives and his actions, despite having never met the man or even spoken with him—while he rots in a Cuban prison without the opportunity to freely and openly respond, is deplorable.”

Susan Gross described her husband’s mission as setting up unfettered Internet access to communicate with Jews outside Cuba and an Intranet so the communities—some in remote areas—could communicate with one another, “allowing them to share things like recipes, prayers and even sports scores.”

She described testimony at Gross’ trial by an elderly Cuban Jewish man who needed assistance in getting to the stand.

“When the prosecutor asked him what Alan showed him on the Internet, he became emotional and said, ‘We saw the world!’ ” she recounted. “A bit taken aback by this response, the prosecutor asked the witness to explain further. He said that Alan used the Internet to show them places they had never seen before—pictures of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the city of London. Clearly he did so through Google Earth, something we take so much for granted in our country.”

Gross’ backers still hold out hope that the Cubans may consider his release, although the news from last year is not good; his lawyers have exhausted the Cuban appeals system, up to and including a plea to President Castro.

Additionally, the reported Cuban request in exchange for Gross’ release—the release of the “Cuban Five,” U.S.-based Cuban intelligence officers arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001—would be difficult at the best of times. In an election year it is seen as impossible given the anti-Castro sentiments prevailing in Florida, a swing state.

Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is continuing its appeal to figures and countries that may have influence with Cuba.

“We have approached other countries, religious leaders, those who have ties or are visiting Cuba,” he said. “We have tried all the different venues possible that might give some result.”

Daroff said the burden of securing Gross’ release was on the entity that sent him on his mission: the U.S. government.

USAID spokesmen did not return multiple requests for comment. State Department officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said that securing Gross’ release is a priority.

Israeli tourist released from Chile jail

An Israeli tourist charged by Chile with accidentally starting a massive forest fire in a popular national park was fined and released.

Rotem Singer, 23, was ordered by a court in Puerto Natales to pay a $10,000 fine to the government of Chile and perform two years of community service for the Jewish National Fund. JNF and its Israeli branch Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael will help raise money to plant 50,000 new trees in the Torres del Paine national park.

Singer, of the central Israeli city of Nes Tziona, was arrested Dec. 31 and released on bail. He was ordered to remain in the region while the case was investigated. He is accused of setting fire to toilet paper in order to dispose of the trash and of not putting out the fire well enough.

Some 48 wildfires burned more than 32,000 acres of forest in the national park in late December and early January, and destroyed at least 100 homes.

Under the agreement, Singer was not implicated in the fire. Ynet reported that Singer will continue on his post-army backpack trip.

Cuban Jewish leaders meet with Alan Gross

Two Cuban Jewish leaders met with jailed American Jewish contractor Alan Gross.

Adela Dworin, president of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Havana, and David Prinstein, the synagogue’s vice president, met Monday with Gross, 62, at a military hospital where he is being held. The visit, in honor of Chanukah, came at the request of the Jewish leaders, according to reports. Dworin reportedly brought latkes and chocolate gelt and lit a Chanukah menorah with Gross, a U.S. subcontractor jailed in Cuba for the last two years for “crimes against the state.”

Dworin said in a statement released to the media that Gross had told her that he gained some weight and that he was in “good physical shape” and walks five miles a day in the facility. Dworin, who has met with Gross on previous occasions, told CBS that he appeared to be in better spirits than in the past. She also released two photos taken of Gross during the meeting.

Gross’s wife, Judy, disputed Dworin’s characterization of her husband’s health.

“It was upsetting to see the photos of Alan from his visit with Adela Dworin,” she said in a statement. “To those of us who knew him before his incarceration began more than two years ago, he is now frail, weak, and appears decades older than the 60-year old man that we last saw on American soil.”

Gross reportedly is in ill health and has lost 100 pounds since being imprisoned.

Dworin said that Gross hoped for a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and expressed the desire that he would be able to visit Cuba once his prison term is over.

Gross was not included on a list released earlier this week of nearly 3,000 prisoners whom Cuban leader Raoul Castro said he will release on humanitarian grounds.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba. He was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba.

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet. The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

Shalit recovering well, his grandfather says

Gilad Shalit has recovered from the physical ordeal of his Gaza captivity, his grandfather said.

Tzvi Shalit met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday to update him on the rehabilitation of the Israeli soldier who was seized by Hamas-led gunmen in 2006 and kept incommunicado until his release as part of an Egyptian-brokered prisoner swap in October.

“Gilad has put on weight.  He really is back to normal,”  Netanyahu’s office quoted Shalit’s grandfather as telling the prime minister.

“You saved my grandson for me.  In the current situation in the region, it would have been impossible to return him.”

We salute you, Gilad!

“He who wrought miracles for our fathers, and redeemed them from slavery unto freedom, may he speedily redeem us, and gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth, even all Israel united in fellowship; and let us say, Amen.” 

“HaMakom y’rachem ethkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yrushalayim” 

“May G-d comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” 

I remember the last time I cried. Not sobbed, but cried. 

It was in England. I had returned there following my service in Tzahal to pursue my medical studies – my ambition at the time to become a physician. It was an ambition I left behind me some time ago. 

I was a stranger in that country. I returned there British in accent and formal citizenship alone – not viscerally. In my soul, my mindset and my thoughts I had become an Israeli, moulded to that form in a fashion that only a military experience can beget. 

No event defined my service to a greater extent than the second Lebanon war, during which Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Schalit were kidnapped. Their abduction reverberated around our unit, to our officers and, of course, throughout Israeli society as a whole. Ehud and Eldad, Z’L were kidnapped on July 12th, 2006. Gilad, on June 25th of the same year. 

When I returned to England in 2008, I was consumed with angst as to the fate of them all. I don’t believe I ever spoke out on the subject. It was too fresh. I simply prayed each morning and every night in my solitude that they would be returned home to their families safely, alive and well. 

Every passing day brought greater loneliness in the United Kingdom. There seemed to be no-one with whom I could speak on this matter, nobody with whom I could share this experience. And yet I was sustained by a deep hope that all were still alive. 

My Israeli friends, when I discussed the prospect of our soldiers coming home, would tell me that in the case of Goldwasser and Regev there was little reason to remain optimistic. So extensive was the damage to their vehicle, they would tell me, they could not possibly have survived. But hope I did, and pray I did. 

Israel entered into negotiations with Hezbollah for their return. 

Then came the day of the exchange. I was driving as the news came over the radio. Coffins filled with their bodies were to be transferred, rather than soldiers alive and well. 

My hopes for their safe return were ended. I felt I had been naive and foolish. Drawing my car to the roadside I began to weep, and that weep became a sob and the sobbing evolved into cries. 

I felt totally alone, detached from all around me and embarrassed by my optimism. 

It was July 16th, 2008, and that was the last time I cried. 

Today, here in Israel, we celebrate the return of Gilad Schalit, even as we console one another over the dreadful cost that has been furnished for his return. 

Here in Israel, like nowhere else on earth, we have all carried the anguish of his absence and we have done so as one. That oneness is perhaps what made it all bearable. 

Here we refused to relinquish our hope, to cease our praying or to abandon our belief that one day, some day, we might yet see Gilad return. Here there was no loneliness in our anguish, rather abundant company to share the burden – tragically. 

Today he is home. Our hearts soar even as many a tear falls. But I will not cry this day. Today, I prefer pragmatism rather than emotion when considering the actions of our enemies. 

So pragmatically speaking, I state that most every member of Tzahal has known an emptiness since Gilad was taken from us. Each of us has tried not to wonder as to our own fate in the event that the worst should befall us, G-d forbid. 

Every family, every parent and every grandparent of Israel has felt the same, and Jews around the world have voiced their yearning to see Gilad come home. 

Today, our government has brought him home and that anguish has dissipated. Tonight we rest assured that we will not be left behind in the field of battle, nor at a checkpoint, nor at any other post and we are comforted by that. 

Yet I fear that a new anguish has replaced the old, as we try to anticipate the actions and activities of those who have been released, the possible precedent that has been set, and as we hear the declaration by Hamas that kidnapping is thus proven to be a sound strategy – one to be replicated in the future. 

Gilad had to come home. Our collective wound can now heal, but situations such as this cannot and must not continue. 

Friends, those who seek to terrorise us must be made to understand that our sons and daughters in uniform are not bargaining chips to be redeemed at the time of their choosing. 

Our soldiers are our flesh and our blood, our guardians and protectors. They are our brothers, sisters, parents and children and they, each of them, must be guarded and protected in return. They are untouchable, sacred to us all. 

So this day I will not cry, not even a tear, but I will certainly pray. I will pray that our government, even as I thank them for Gilads return, will ensure that such a sinister dynamic is never revisited upon us. 

I pray Gilad and his family will know peace once more. 

I pray the world understands the price that we paid and will draw no moral equivalence between their thousand and our one. 

I pray we all remember the victims and families of the victims of terror – for dip as we do our fingers into the Passover wine each year to mourn the loss of another people, so too must the joy of today be tempered by sadness. 

I pray we remember always that no matter how heavily this price may weigh on our hearts, it is precisely our heart that makes us so wondrous a people. 

And I pray and give thanks for the fact that here in Israel, while lessons must be learned, changes must be made and policies must be altered; hope, for me, is never to be abandoned – not in the surroundings in which I find myself today. 

Welcome home to you, Gilad. We pray that you heal and thank you for enabling us to do the same. 

It is we who salute you. 

IDF Sgt. Res. Benjamin Anthony is founder and director of Our Soldiers Speak.

Source: Egypt to fly Palestinians abroad after swap

Egypt’s government is stepping up security at Cairo airport as it prepares to fly Palestinians freed under a prisoner exchange with Israel out of the country, an Egyptian intelligence source said Tuesday.

Hundreds of Palestinians are being freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit under the deal between Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers and the Israeli government.

Cairo airport raised security to emergency level as it prepared to transport 40 of the Palestinians to three countries as part of the swap deal, the intelligence source said.

The source said the prisoners were being sent to Turkey, Syria and Qatar and that their travel formalities were being overseen by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

A Turkish foreign ministry official confirmed that Turkey had agreed to receive some of the prisoners because it would contribute to peace in the region.

“As we have always said, we’re looking at this issue as a humanitarian issue,” the Turkish official said. “Our contribution to this agreement will be to receive a group of Palestinians in Turkey.”

A plane would be sent to Egypt to fly the Palestinians to Turkey, the official said on condition of anonymity, without giving further details.

Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer, Editing by William Maclean

Gilad Shalit freed in mass prisoner swap

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home to a national outpouring of joy on Tuesday after five years in captivity as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners exchanged for him were greeted with kisses from Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

“I missed my family,” a gaunt Shalit, his breathing labored at times, said in an interview with Egyptian TV conducted before he was transferred to Israel and broadcast after he went free.

“I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

Shalit, 25, was taken across the frontier from the Gaza Strip into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and driven to Israel’s Vineyard of Peace border crossing, where a helicopter awaited to fly him to an Israeli air base for a reunion with his parents.

Simultaneously Israel freed 477 Palestinian prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.

Palestinians, awaiting the release of prisoners at a West Bank checkpoint, hurled rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas, after the military announced to the crowd over a loudspeaker that the group had been taken to another crossing.

In the television interview, Shalit said he found out a week ago that he was to be released. The soldier, who had not been seen since a 2009 video, said he had feared he would be held “for many more years”.

Political commentators said it appeared unlikely the prisoner exchange agreed by the two bitter enemies would have any immediate impact on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that broke down last year.

The mood in Israel was one of elation, with “welcome home” signs on street corners and morning commuters watching live broadcasts of the swap on cellular telephones.

Shalit has been popularly portrayed as “everyone’s son” and opinion polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israeli backed the thousand-for-one deal, although many of the prisoners going free were convicted of deadly attacks.

For Palestinians, it was a time to celebrate what Hamas hailed as a victory, and a heroes’ welcome awaited the released prisoners. Palestinians see brethren jailed by Israel as prisoners of war in a struggle for statehood.

“This is the greatest joy for the Palestinian people,” said Azzia al-Qawasmeh, who waited at a West Bank checkpoint for her son Amer, whom she said had been in prison for 24 years.

The deal received a green light from Israel’s Supreme Court late on Monday after it rejected petitions from the public to prevent the mass release of prisoners, many serving life sentences imposed by Israeli courts for deadly attacks.


Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He was whisked back into Gaza and has since been held incommunicado.

Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, tightened its blockade of the small coastal enclave after Shalit’s disappearance.

The deal with Hamas, a group classified by the United States and European Union as a terrorist organization over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, is not expected to spur peace negotiations.

Those talks, led by Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, collapsed 13 months ago. Abbas now wants the U.N. to recognize Palestinian statehood, a unilateral bid opposed by Israel and its main ally, the United States.

At Tel Nof air base in central Israel, Shalit will see his parents, whose public campaign for his release put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with a bitter enemy. Netanyahu will also meet Shalit there. Later, Shalit will fly by helicopter to his family home in northern Israel.

The repatriation of captured soldiers, alive or dead, has long been an emotionally charged issue for Israelis. Many have served in the military as conscripts and see it as sacrosanct. But they also feel stung by the high price they feel Israel is paying for Shalit.

“I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families.

Additional reporting by Rami Amichai, Ronen Zvulun, Ari Rabinovitch, Maayan Lubell, Douglas Hamilton, Mohammed Salem and Tom Perry; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alastair Macdonald

UN’S Ban sees peace process boost from Shalit deal

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that he expected the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange to boost prospects for the wider peace process.

“With this release, it will have a far-reaching positive impact to the stalled Middle East peace process,” Ban told Reuters at the end of a three-day trip to Switzerland.

“I am very encouraged by the prisoner exchange today after many many years of negotiation. The United Nations has been calling for (an end to) the unacceptable detention of Gilad Shalit and also the release of all Palestinians whose human rights have been abused all the time.”

Reporting by Amena Bakr and Vincent Fribault, writing by Tom Miles, editing by Stephanie Nebehay

Shalit, Israel and rabbinic debate

Political sovereignty in the restored Jewish homeland often means making decisions with life-and-death implications. That reality was brought home last week with the agonizing decision to authorize the terribly imbalanced swap to gain the release of Gilad Shalit.

The criticisms and concerns lodged by many supporters of Israel within and beyond its borders against the Netanyahu government for exchanging more than 1,000 prisoners for a lone Israeli soldier are legitimate and understandable. Undoubtedly some of the released prisoners will attempt again to wreak murder and mayhem against inhabitants of the Jewish state. 

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Jews and people of good will throughout the world have rejoiced over a decision that will allow Shalit to return to the safety and love of his family and nation. Agreeing to the lopsided deal involved great pain for an Israeli government charged with balancing numerous and competing concerns in providing for the safety and security of its soldiers and citizens. The decision involved no easy or obvious choice.

However, as so many reflect upon the action taken by Israel, it is instructive to remember that Israel unfortunately has confronted the same heartbreaking and excruciating question before. In 1985, the Jewish state had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers.

While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs remains unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis—Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi – addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words from that time have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position adopted by the current Israeli government in agreeing to this exchange.

Rabbi Goren served as Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, while Rabbi Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Rabbi Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming “our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists,” and based his ruling on a Talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, “Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value.”

Rabbi Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives – they were surely in “mortal danger.”  However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them, as an exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all Israeli citizens and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Rabbi Halevi, responding to Rabbi Goren soon after the article appeared, said he was sympathetic to the position advanced by his Ashkenazic colleague but disagreed with the conclusion. In Rabbi Halevi’s view, the conditions that obtained in a modern Jewish state were vastly different from those that confronted the Jewish community in pre-modern times when the Talmudic passage was written. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the “political-national” aims that motivated the terrorists “to wreak havoc among the Jewish people” would continue regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers.

Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their efforts until a political solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government, as Rabbi Halevi saw it, was whether to “strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars.” Faced with the two options, Rabbi Halevi believed that priority had to be assigned the latter—the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the Israeli soldiers.

If a soldier and by extension his family and all residents of the Jewish state knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, and that such release possessed the highest governmental priority, then the resolve of the citizen-soldiers of the State of Israel to defend their nation would be fortified and absolute.

In a moral universe where alternatives were limited and where the military might of the State of Israel could protect its citizenry despite the preposterous numerical imbalance of the exchange, Rabbi Halevi felt this choice was still the wisest one that the government could make in an imperfect world.

In responding in this way, Rabbi Halevi enunciated a position that provides a rationale for understanding why the current Israeli government made the decision on the issue of prisoner exchange. As its critics contend, surely it is a policy fraught with danger for the state. At the same time, it appears to be a policy that continues to guide Israel legitimately as it continues to provide unlimited support to its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on the state’s destruction.

Rabbi David Ellenson is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.