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) were filled with people who didn’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) of the extended Sawalha clan (which has some 500 members). Sahel Sawalha could not find the words to describe the excitement he felt at the Muqata. They could barely stand on their feet when they embraced the two.
Hosni, his brother, and Mohamed, his cousin, were both 17 when, on December 2, 1990, they stabbed to death Baruch Heisler, a 24-year-old yeshiva student, on a bus traveling from Petah Tikva to Tel Aviv. Three members of the Sawalha family boarded the No. 66 bus at a stop in Pardes Katz. According to the indictment, they stabbed passengers in order to be accepted into the Fatah organization. A policeman who happened to be there opened fire at them. Mohammed Sawalha’s cousin Jafar Dweikat was killed instantly. Hosni Sawalha sustained three ricochet wounds (next to the eye, on the jaw and on his hand).
Mohammed and Hosni were tried in Tel Aviv District Court. They say they refused to hire legal counsel and were therefore represented by a state-appointed lawyer. Because they were underage, they were sentenced to 35 years in prison. The prosecution appealed and the Supreme Court stiffened the sentence to life imprisonment. The army demolished their families’ homes.
Mohammed Sawalha preferred not to comment on the deed for which they received life terms. He said, “We have to look forward, to the future. Thinking about all our dear ones whom the Israelis killed all these years will not bring them back to life. We and the Israelis have to think about our children, about the future generations and about the common denominator that will allow us to live here.”
But Hosni, who spoke less, said, “We were young, 17. Today, as adults, we see things differently.” He also gave an embarrassed smile. A relative said that the arrest and the demolition of the house had shortened the life of Hosni’s mother. She died at 48.
A reception like this is the least appropriate time and place for an honest discussion on the past, and not only because the two had not slept for the past four days. They learned of their impending release on Sunday, from Palestinian television and from Israel’s Channel 2. Mohammed was in Rimon Prison, in the Negev; Hosni in Shata (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) and from the Prisoners’ Club (led by Kadoura Fares). 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 (that is, they were not convicted of manslaughter or murder) .
“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.)
Another of those present said we should not forget the circumstances in which Mohammed and Hosni Sawalha had acted: the first intifada and its suppression. According to data of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, from the time the uprising erupted, in December 1987, until December 1990, when the Sawalha cousins were arrested, Israeli security forces killed 721 Palestinians in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. Of them, 154 were minors below the age of 17. (The B’Tselem statistics from that period did not make the careful distinctions that are currently made between men and women, different ages, and those who bore arms or did not.) 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.