Lost in the aftermath of the IDF’s Monday strike on Hamas leaders in Rafah was the significance of one of the targets. Khaled Najjar, a major figure in Hamas’s West Bank branch, was killed in the strike. Twenty years ago, Najjar was found responsible for the murder of the husband of a current member of the Knesset. His case also reveals the complex calculus behind hostage deals.

In 2003, Shuli Har-Melech and his wife, current MK Limor Har-Melech, who was seven months pregnant at the time, were driving to their home when several Palestinian terrorists opened fire on them. Shuli was killed and Limor was badly wounded, but she recovered. Her baby was born early by caesarian section hours after the attack.

Limor, who has since remarried, posted on Twitter/X that Najjar was the head of the unit responsible for the attack.

But why was Najjar free? For his crimes during the intifada, he was convicted and sentenced to seven life sentences in prison. Limor remembers Najjar taunting Israelis at his sentencing: “You are a weak nation! We are a strong nation, we have patience, we will kidnap soldiers until the last of our prisoners is released. Seven life sentences? I don’t consider those numbers. I’m going to be released.”

Limor then laments that Najjar was correct: He was released in a prisoner exchange in 2011. A few years later, he was reportedly behind the killing of another Israeli. Wrote Limor: “So the feelings are mixed. On the one hand, great relief that he was eliminated and would no longer be able to order the murder of Jews, but on the other hand, the understanding that we must learn the painful lesson, that what was done cannot be undone and his release in the Shalit deal allowed him to return and murder more Jews. The consequences were unequivocal and clear, and our fighters were forced to pursue the same terrorists, again, 20 years later.”

The first takeaway here is the obvious one: the danger in releasing terrorists, who most of the time can be expected to return to their old ways. This is the subject of ongoing debate in Israel, where the imperative of redeeming captives must be weighed against the odds that future captives or victims will be part of the price of the deal.

But there is a secondary debate here, and Limor hints at it while some of the responses to her tweet say it outright. For a 2018 piece in an international law journal, Shelly Aviv Yeini studied the societal effects of the prisoner exchanges and found that they had begun to corrode public faith in the criminal-justice system. Yeini and others note that this distrust is at least partially behind various attempts over the years to reintroduce the death penalty. (Israel technically allows for capital punishment, but it is essentially a dead letter.)

Writes Yeini: “There is a sentiment among people that justice is not being achieved, since a perpetrator who is brought to trial and convicted may not need to complete his time in prison as they might be released the next day through an exchange. When people lose trust in the system, they tend to seek their own means of justice. This is a dangerous phenomenon that harms the very core of democracy.”

Put simply, often when terrorists are jailed for heinous crimes, neither they nor the public believe they’ll serve their full time. And the process that leads to their early release may put additional lives in danger. Israel is highly unlikely to reintroduce the death penalty but, like any state, it relies on public legitimacy to curtail vigilantism and provide stability in governance. Najjar’s taunting of his victims’ families at his sentencing is also a reminder that Israelis aren’t the only ones who have noticed the pattern.

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