In memory of the victims of murderers just sent home.

Morris “Moshe” Eisenstadt was born in Brooklyn in 1914; he immigrated to Israel late in life, and volunteered for many years at a hospital in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Eisenstadt was sitting on a park bench reading a book when Ibrahim Salem Ali al-Rai attacked and killed him with an axe in 1994. He was 79 years old.

Isaac Rotenberg was born in Poland in 1927. In the course of the Holocaust he was sent to the Sobibor death camp, but managed to escape in 1943 when Sobibor’s inmates rose up against the Nazis. Rotenberg ultimately fought the German army with the Partisans and, after arriving in Israel, worked in construction. He was on his knees repairing a floor when Salem Ali Atiyeh Abu-Musa and another assailant attacked and killed him with axes in 1994. He was 67.

Annie Ley came from France as a tourist in 1991; Mohammed Ahmed Khaled Asakreh stabbed her to death in Bethlehem, reportedly as she ate in the restaurant at which he worked. Ley was 64. Her murderer, along with al-Rai, Abu-Musa, and 23 other prisoners were released from prison by Israel earlier this week, as a good will gesture to its Palestinian negotiating partners.

Each of these attacks happened when I lived in Israel, and many others as well. I wasn’t able to fully grasp the horror at the time, and I’m not able to do so now. I don’t understand what it takes to pick up an axe and murder an old man on a park bench, any more than I understand what it takes to wrap oneself in explosives and rip a crowded bus to bloody shreds.

I understand that this is a war. When soldiers are killed, I mourn, but at least I understand the mechanism at hand: We kill their combatants, they kill ours. Parents remember nothing but chubby cheeks and expressions of love; enemies remember nothing but the other side’s willingness to kill me and mine.

I also understand that me and mine have killed a wildly disproportionate number of them and theirs, many of them non-combatants, at least a third of them minors. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish can tell you about the three daughters and a niece he lost when an Israeli tank targeted his Gaza home during Operation Cast Lead; a shell ripped through a wall: “Schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap…. There was brain matter on the ceiling.” (And don’t tell me those deaths were “unintentional”—look Dr. Abuelaish in the eye, and tell him).

I believe that human beings can only make peace with their enemies. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will have to forgive, or at least look past, terrible acts and tremendous loss if we are ever to stop the cycle of violence. I believe that the release of terrorists who murdered wholly innocent people was the right thing to do, if it will genuinely bring us closer to the possibility of a lasting peace.

Israelis often fail to understand the importance of the issue. The Palestinian prisoner population is massive, and not all are held with as much justification as those who murder Holocaust survivors and French tourists. Israel has long used the collective and individual fates of these men (and a handful of women) as a bargaining chip, and it’s doing so again—not meting out justice, but rather issuing open-ended punishments unless and until the state decides it’s in its own best interest to do something else. Israelis tend to underestimate the resonance of all this for the Palestinian people; it might be worthwhile to consider how much effort we put into returning the bones of fallen soldiers to our borders. Many in the Arab nations see those soldiers in no better light than we see the Palestinians released on Wednesday—one can argue with that perception, but arguing won’t change the fact.

And, for all that—for all that I believe the prisoner release was justifiable and smart—I do not believe that we are free to dismiss what those men did. I do not believe that we are free to ignore any of the humanity that has spilled on the ground as we have fought, and fought, and fought, using each other’s bodies as the tools by which to achieve our various ends.

Morris Eisenstadt, Isaac Rotenberg, and Annie Ley, and all those like them, did not deserve to die in abject terror as murderous hands descended. They deserved to reach the end of their days in peace and comfort, surrounded by love and goodness. No matter what John Kerry achieves, the reality of those deaths cannot be reversed.

It was right to release the prisoners. And it is right to never forget what they cost us.

A note about names and biographical information: Much of the published information regarding the prisoner release is at least slightly inaccurate—many sources have misspelled names, and at least one Israeli outlet identified Morris Eisenstadt as “a soldier.” In an effort to be as accurate as possible, I have leaned on and cross-referenced Israeli governmental sources for event details, Haaretz for the English transliteration of Arabic names, and a variety of English-language sources for the English spelling of victims’ names. I remain unsure as to whether Eisenstadt went by “Morris” or “Moshe,” so I have included both.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Why the prisoner release reinforces the Occupied/Occupier relationship.

I don’t always agree with Jeffrey Goldberg, and I suppose that ultimately I’m not entirely in agreement with him now, but he’s raised an important point that I believe reflects a reality underlying the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship, one that we (and in that “we,” I’m boldly including President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry) should bear in mind as peace negotiations move forward.

On Monday, Goldberg wrote that:

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu would sooner release murderers from prison than stop building apartments on the West Bank. In traditional Zionist thought…possession of all the biblical heartland wasn’t understood to be a moral and spiritual necessity, if such possession would undermine the safety of Israelis or the moral and political standing of Israel itself.

For members of Netanyahu’s party and his broader coalition, however, the possession of these biblical lands is paramount. They have become idol worshippers, and their idol is land. How else to explain what just happened: An Israeli government decided to venerate land over justice, and over life itself.

Yes, I agree with this. I agree that Israel’s right has forged a Golden Calf out of the occupied territories, and that it is willing to sacrifice (or overlook the sacrifice of) real human lives to the cult of that idol. I also agree that there is something essentially anti-Zionist about the entire process.

But I think that there is, in fact, an additional way, an even more essential way, to explain what just happened. Netanyahu’s actions—and those of 65 years of Israeli officialdom—also reflect something much less poetic, much less Biblical, much more banal, and fundamentally much more human.

When Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, the subtext is entirely of a piece with the subtext of the whole occupation infrastructure: We control your lives. We decide who may go where, and when. We build walls, we issue permits, we arrest, we release. Your lives—down to and including your very bodies—are under our control.

On the other hand, the subtext to freezing apartment building on the West Bank is “Palestinians are allowed to help shape Israel’s future as well as their own.” Adjusting the settlement enterprise, in any way, is an acknowledgement that Palestinians have a right to say something about it in the first place, and that’s something Israeli officials are not predisposed to acknowledge.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least that acknowledging Palestinian rights threatens Israel’s hold on the West Bank. Given that Israel’s government has long done all it can to deepen the occupation, the notion that Netanyahu will loosen that grip easily is a little fanciful (witness all the hard work Kerry has put in, and still the settlements grind on). And of course, as resonant as the prisoner release is for Palestinians, as emotionally challenging as it is for Israelis, sending a few dozen people back home (murderers or no) doesn’t actually change or threaten the occupation.

But beyond that, there’s all that subtext. Official Israel has almost never been able to acknowledge that Palestinians have a right to an independent opinion on any of this. The entire relationship has always been predicated on the presumption that Israel is in the right, the Palestinians are in the wrong, and only Israel may set the parameters of discussion and the region’s future.

Consider the language that official Israel so often uses: The government will or will not “allow” the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will “grant” the Palestinians this concession or that. Veteran negotiator Uri Savir discussed this very issue in his book about the Oslo Accords, The Process:

The bureaucrats and officers who ruled the Palestinians had been asked to pass on their powers to their ‘wards.’… We had been engaged in dehumanization for so long that we really thought ourselves ‘more equal’… [Those bureaucrats and officers] tended to begin by saying ‘We have decided to allow you…’.

Israelis and Palestinians like to believe ourselves special and our conflict unique, but bottom line, this is classic Subject/Other, Occupied/Occupier behavior.

When men tell women how they may be women; when white Americans define citizenship for black Americans; when the US forcibly transferred Native American children to white schools and Japanese Americans to internment camps; when Israel threw a fit because Palestinians had the gall to use the word “state” before Israel had said they could—in all such cases, people in positions of power tell those with less power who they are and what they may do. The Subject strips the Object of agency, and then reacts very badly when the Object reclaims that which has been taken.

Releasing Palestinian prisoners reminds the Palestinian people who’s boss; freezing settlements gives them part in the project at hand. The first comes to Israel very easily—as for the latter, we’ll have to see what Secretary Kerry can do.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.