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Settler's Early Release Casts Israeli Scales of Justice in Uneven Light

High court ruling merely underscores claims of double standards against Palestinians, critics say.


JERUSALEM — At first glance, a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision approving the early prison release of a Jewish settler who killed a Palestinian suspect gangland style seemed Solomonic.

It appeased Jewish nationalists clamoring for the freedom of 32-year-old Yoram Skolnick, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993.

The ruling also received initial--though muted--applause from some human rights activists because the court established a promising precedent: In future cases, the parole board granting such releases must consider whether freeing a prisoner would encourage other individuals to show contempt for human life.

Now, on reflection, human rights activists aren't so sure. Some declare that the new rule will make little or no difference in addressing a troubling aspect of Israeli justice: the perception that Jewish civilians receive lenient treatment for killing or maiming Palestinians.

"The bottom line is that Palestinian life is very cheap," said Moshe Negbi, an Israeli attorney and legal affairs commentator for Maariv newspaper and Voice of Israel radio. "Despite what the court says, if you kill a Palestinian you would still be able to get off after a very short time in [prison]."

Even more troubling for Negbi and human rights activists is the timing of the court's ruling.

Since the second intifada, or uprising, began in September, Palestinians have been stoning and shooting at Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israeli security forces respond with rubber-coated bullets, live ammunition and targeted killings of known militants.

Increasingly, Jewish nationalists have been calling for revenge attacks on Palestinians.

"In these times, it is important that people who take the law into their own hands be punished severely," Negbi said. This decision "sends the opposite message."

For human rights activists, Skolnick's release after less than eight years in prison was another ugly reminder of Israel's dual system of justice. Only last month, a Jerusalem judge sentenced a Jewish settler to six months of community service for kicking and pistol-whipping to death an 11-year-old Palestinian boy four years ago. Palestinians and some Israelis condemned the sentence as too lenient.

Skolnick was convicted of pumping nine bullets into an unarmed, blindfolded Palestinian who was on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. The 21-year-old man, Mousa abu Sabha, was captured near Skolnick's home in the Maale Hever settlement, near the West Bank city of Hebron, after allegedly stabbing a Jewish settler.

Skolnick said during his trial that he thought Abu Sabha had a grenade.

Former President Ezer Weizman commuted Skolnick's sentence twice, to 15 years in 1997, then to 11 years in 1999. The parole board ordered Skolnick's release last year, declaring that his behavior in prison was admirable and his expression of regret genuine.

But the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a civil rights group, asked the Supreme Court to block the parole board's decision, saying that Skolnick still harbored hatred toward Arabs.

In its decision Sunday, the court said that, in addition to considering whether a felon posed a threat to public safety, the parole board should determine whether an early release would create a public perception that the felon's crime wasn't particularly deplorable.

Tamar Pelleg-Sryck, a human rights attorney, said the decision would not help her Palestinian clients--and could instead hurt them.

"Public perception will always be defined [according to] how Israelis interpret it," Pelleg-Sryck said. "Palestinians will remain in jail because Israelis will always be outraged if a Palestinian criminal is released."

B'Tselem, an Israeli group that monitors human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Skolnick's release represented "one of dozens of examples where the legal authorities discriminated between Jewish murderers and Palestinian murderers."

According to figures compiled by B'Tselem, the hundreds of casualties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since December 1987--when the first intifada began--include 119 Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians and 110 Israelis killed by Palestinian civilians.

Five of the six Israeli civilians who received life imprisonment for killing Palestinians have had their sentences commuted, according to B'Tselem. None of the 30 Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis have received reduced sentences.

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