JERUSALEM (Sep. 1)
How many Palestinian security prisoners should be freed from jail became the make-or-break issue as Israeli and Palestinian leaders feverishly tried to work out a deal this week.
It’s a touchy issue for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who does not want to be seen as having negotiated the release of terrorists with “blood on their hands.”
Among those prisoners is Ahmad Soub-Laban, who sat in Israeli jails for five years.
Soub-Laban had killed a neighbor he suspected of having collaborated with the Israelis and had thrown gasoline bombs at Israeli policemen.
Even now, he doesn’t regret a thing.
“It was all in the service of our people,” said Soub-Laban, 28, now chairman of the Jerusalem chapter of the Prisoners Club, a nationwide organization whose primary goal is to help the families of Palestinian security prisoners.
Last month, Israel released, as a gesture of goodwill, Khalil Sa’adi A-Ra’ei two weeks ago. He sat in the lobby of the National Palace hotel in Jerusalem, attached to his mobile phone, waiting for news on whether the authorities would permit him to go to the Gaza Strip and join the welcoming ceremonies for newly released prisoners.
“Of course I would have celebrated,” he told JTA. “But the struggle is far from over.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to release 750 prisoners, but let only 250 go — 150 common criminals and 100 security prisoners.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Israel offered to release an additional 350, with the Palestinians insisting on 400.
The Cabinet of Israel’s current prime minister, Ehud Barak, recently confirmed the principle that had guided the previous government — not to release prisoners “with blood on their hands.”
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin sided with the Palestinian view that once Israel negotiated with leaders of former terrorist organizations, it should no longer rule out amnesty for their emissaries.
“We have no moral right to do so,” Beilin told JTA.
But Beilin’s voice was a lone one.
“There is no intention to release prisoners with blood on their hands who had murdered Israelis,” said Haim Ramon, the Cabinet member in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for Jerusalem affairs.
The Cabinet also reaffirmed the policy that only members of organizations that had stopped supporting terrorism — and only those who were arrested before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accord — would be considered for amnesty.
These stipulations ruled out members of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other organizations that reject the peace process.
According to Ramon, out of 1,894 security prisoners now being held in Israeli jails, only 75 “have no blood on their hands.” This is a far cry from the 650 that the Palestinians hope to see released.
In an effort to dismantle this human — and political — mine, Palestinian minister Hisham Abdul Razek this week visited Palestinian prisoners in the Negev Desert and in Ashkelon. The Palestinians were trying to come up with a list of prisoners they believe could be accepted by the Israelis as eligible for release.
It all seemed too familiar to Soub-Laban.
“Four years ago I was there, in the same situation,” he recalled.
Soub-Laban, a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, said he had received an order to beat up one of his neighbors, suspected of having collaborated with the Israelis.
He carried out his mission with total devotion. The man died of his wounds, and Soub-Laban was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
He served only five because he was one of the prisoners “with blood on their hands” who was freed by the government of Yitzhak Rabin.
Six of his eight brothers have served jail time at one time or another. His younger brother, Aiman, 20, was sentenced a month and a half ago to two years in jail for having thrown gasoline bombs at policemen.
“We are no exception,” Soub-Laban said. “You will hardly find a Palestinian family which is not connected to the intifada one way or another,” referring to the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising.
His prison mate was Mohammad Abu-Saleh, who was sentenced for having thrown a hand grenade at policemen near his residence at the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem.
“The policemen were protecting workers on a new road to the new Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev,” said Abu-Saleh, 35.
“I did it because the Israelis behave as if this entire country belongs to them. I did not want to hurt Israelis as a target, but rather as a way of telling the authorities: `Let us live in peace.'”
Abu-Saleh, who served seven years in jail, claims that his “belligerent act” has proved fruitful.
“We succeeded in that we convinced Rabin, the man who had boasted that he had broken down the intifada, that the Palestinian people are entitled to receive their rights.”
Abu-Saleh claims that it is in Israel’s best interest to release the security prisoners.
“Their release will strengthen the position of our leadership. In the absence of their release, critics of the Authority will say that it had betrayed the Palestinian people and had reached a cheap agreement with the Israelis.”
“The prisoners’ issue is a test case for our relations,” Soub-Laban warned. “It is a time bomb. Unless it is defused, it will blow up and cause a new intifada.”