‘We Were Young. The Israelis And Us Must Now Think About The Future’

The men in the Sawalha family, from the village of Azmut, east of Nablus, arrived at the Muqata − Palestinian government headquarters, in Ramallah − at about 11 o’clock on Tuesday night. They were there to welcome their two relatives, Mohammed and Hosni. The two men, along with the nine other released prisoners from the West Bank, did not arrive at the plaza outside the office of President Mahmoud Abbas until around 1 A.M. Reporters at the scene estimated that there were no more than 1,000 people. Sahel, one of Hosni’s brothers, thought that despite the late hour that “there were a great many people there, maybe 500.”

The announcer in the reports broadcast live by the Voice of Palestine referred to “thousands” packing the plaza. The excitement in his voice sounded forced, and joined other exaggerated comments by official and semi-official spokesmen, to the effect that everyone was considering the prisoner release to be a great victory for Abbas.

Still, there’s no dismissing the joy of the families of the freed prisoners. At about 4 A.M. on Wednesday, the streets of Azmut (population: about 3,500 mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’t want to miss the cars that brought the two native sons home from Ramallah.

When Mohammed entered the house, his mother felt as though she had given birth to him anew. That is what he would tell us a few hours later, when he and his cousin Hosni were seated behind two floral wreaths, so that they could receive the greetings of the many visitors to the diwan (the family gathering space(which has some 500 members(next to the eye, on the jaw and on his hand font-family:"Arial","sans-serif"”>‏(Gilboa) Prison, in the north.

Within hours, they were told to get ready to depart: to pack, to part from their cellmates, to bid a hasty farewell to other inmates in the wing. All 26 prisoners due for release were transported from their respective prisons at about the same time and concentrated in the transition cells in Ayalon Prison in Ramle. Riding in the bosta (the colloquial Arabic term for the bus or van that transports prisoners) is always rough, with hands and feet bound, and takes hours even when the distance is short. The transition cells are crowded and dirty; it’s hard to sleep in them, the expected enormous change in one’s life also keep the sleep away, and the warders and their ways are unfamiliar.

Mohammed felt deeply humiliated when members of a special prison unit, he says, demanded twice within 24 hours that they disrobe, “as though we were going to smuggle something out of the jail,” and had to undergo a series of about 30 types of searches and examinations and fingerprinting within 48 hours. The most difficult part was that a package containing his personal effects, including precious letters and some 300 family photographs, was taken from him as soon as he left the prison and he worried that it would get lost, as happened to belongings of other inmates in the past. Hosni was able to convey his most precious personal effects, such as letters and photographs, to his family a few weeks ago.

Mohammed, very tired and embarrassed in a gray suit he was not used to, spoke almost in a whisper. Hosni, also uncomfortable in a suit, smoked “so as not to fall asleep.” Some of the young members of the family offered coffee and water and chocolates to the men who came to greet the two and then sat on plastic chairs that had been placed in the hall, or outside, beneath a lean-to. There were no women, either from the family or the village, among the crowd that welcomed the two released men and sat in the hall.

Terms of release

At about 1 P.M., a delegation arrived: senior officials from the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs (headed by the minister, Issa Quarake mso-bidi-font-family:Verdana”>’ Club font-family:"Arial","sans-serif"”>‏). It was their first stop on a journey of greetings that would take them to the homes of all the released prisoners. They heard from the Sawalha cousins about the terms of release they had been made to sign.

For one year they are not allowed to leave the boundaries of the Nablus District without a special Israeli military permit. During that year they must report once a month to the office of the coordination and liaison office. They cannot leave the West Bank for the next 10 years without a special permit. If it is alleged that they committed any sort of infraction, they will be returned to prison to serve out their full terms. Appended to the map of the Nablus District that the men received, accompanying a summons to a first interrogation by the Shin Bet security service in mid-September, was a letter of “reduction of punishment” signed by President Shimon Peres.

A few hours earlier, in the Nablus office of the Ministry of Prison Affairs, as we waited for the delegation from Ramallah, which was late, there was time for an honest conversation on the subject of taking another’s life. The 16 employees in the office are all former prisoners. Together, they served some 80 years ) .

“The [Palestinian] Ma’an News Agency is writing that the Sawalhas killed a soldier,” I told them. “Generally, the Palestinian media do not note the fact when those killed were Israeli civilians, still less when they were children. My impression is that this concealment attests to embarrassment, even to shame, that these were the targets of those who are seen as heroes and freedom fighters.”

‘No one talks’

One of the young employees said the Israeli army also kills and has killed civilians, “and no one talks about that.” But the older employees agreed that the concealment points to the difficulty and the natural reservation to harming civilians. “In a case like the one in Itamar, we all bow our heads in shame,” one of the employees, who was in prison for 13 years, said, referring to the killing of a family of five in that settlement in 2011. “In contrast, when the attack on soldiers and armed settlers at the Haramiya junction occurred, we were all proud.” (In 2002, a lone Palestinian sniper killed 10 Israelis at this West Bank checkpoint. 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Arial","sans-serif"”>‏(including East Jerusalem 150%;font-family:"Arial","sans-serif"”>‏(The B) During those three years, Israeli civilians killed another 41 Palestinians, nine of them minors. Another three Palestinians were killed in Israel proper in that period by the security forces, and 17 by Israeli civilians.

In those three years, Palestinians killed 13 Israeli civilians in the occupied territories, of them three minors under the age of 17. Palestinians also killed 13 members of the Israeli security forces. Inside Israel, Palestinians killed seven members of the Israeli security forces and 32 Israeli civilians, including one minor.

Thus, 782 Palestinians were killed in three years, the large majority of them unarmed civilians, as opposed to 65 Israelis, of whom 20 bore arms. That is the true balance of bereavement and killing, without which it is impossible to understand why two 17-year-olds decided to take the life of another while risking their lives and sacrificing their liberty. 

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