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Exchange of prisoners sparks bitter debate among Israelis

Nouh Abu Snaineh, a Palestinian convicted as an accomplice for his part in the stabbing death of a West Bank Jewish settler, was a free man Tuesday, welcoming well wishers to his home. But Israelis bitterly debated the wisdom of allowing 1,150 Palestinian prisoners -- including Mr. Abu Snaineh -- to be exchanged for three Israeli soldiers.

The government allowed the return of 605 Palestinian prisoners to their homes in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and inside Israel. Another 394 prisoners were released in Geneva, and 151 in the Golan Heights.

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Their return met with protests from Israelis and has caused a new political crisis for the fragile ``national unity'' government.

``It is a disaster,'' said a senior aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. ``Many of these guys are real, hard-core murderers. But we had to do it.''

Many of those released were convicted by Israel of terrorist crimes. Israel has always maintained a policy of exchanging hundreds or even thousands of prisoners for handfuls of Israelis. But the release of so many convicted terrorists into Israel and the occupied territories was unprecedented.

There is consensus that the lopsided trade speaks volumes about the value Israel attaches to the life of each Israeli soldier. But there seems to be a growing sense that the ``supreme moral value,'' Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin cited for paying any price to release soldiers, is a weakness Israel can no longer afford.

The government agreed to the exchange after lengthy negotiations with a PLO splinter group headed by Ahmed Jibril.

When the news broke in Israel, it unleashed a storm of protest that seems to be gaining strength as the magnitude of the exchange is understood.

Already there are demands for the immediate release of 20 accused Jewish terrorists now standing trial for a series of attacks on Arabs.

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Vice-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir joined the chorus Tuesday, demanding the release of the Jewish prisoners. Mr. Shamir, leader of the conservative Likud half of the government, threatened to break up the fragile coalition government if the Labor half did not agree to release the Jewish prisoners.

Several Likud ministers in a party caucus Tuesday night called for Israel to impose the death penalty on Arab terrorists and for the immediate release of the accused Jewish terrorists. In a similar caucus, a majority of Labor Party ministers said they were opposed to releasing the accused Jewish terrorists.

West Bank settlers organized mass demonstrations in front of the Israeli parliament building while both rightist politicians and leftist political observers deplored the exchange.

``I am against it,'' said one left-leaning Israeli journalist. ``Our lives are going to change from today. It's a different country -- both because they released these people and because they now will release the Jewish terrorists as well.''

Rabin defended the exchange. ``It is the continuation of an ongoing policy which has characterized all of Israel's governments and all the bodies that have borne responiblity in the state for the welfare and the lives of IDF [Israeli military] soldiers, to do everything to bring the prisoners back home,'' he said in a press conference Tuesday.

Israel's willingness, however reluctant, to free hundreds of convicted terrorists can be understood only in the context of the Jewish state. It is a state built on the ashes of the Holocaust, committed to the notion that each Israeli is responsible for the lives of every other Israeli. In a country that relies for its existence on a largely volunteer army, morale is of supreme importance. It is believed that Israeli soldiers should go into battle knowing no price is too high to regain their freedom.

But that basic principle may now be revamped in the wake of public reaction to the latest exchange.

Monday night, Jews from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba descended on Hebron and fired shots to break up Arab celebrations. Many Israelis fear the settlers may grow more violent if the prisoners remain free.

For Abu Snaineh, the moral questions of the exchange were irrelevant. ``I thank God,'' he said as he held his son. ``I would like to settle down, to stay in Hebron. This is my land.''

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