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Palestinians in Prison Impede Peace : Mideast: Over 5,000 Arab inmates remain in Israeli jails. Their fate has become a test of Rabin’s and Arafat’s credibility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Occupied West Bank--Sixteen months after an accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was supposed to usher in an era of reconciliation between two peoples, Latifa Mohammed Yusef Naji, 49, still fears the night.

She cannot count the times she has been awakened over the years in this refugee camp by the pounding of Israeli soldiers’ fists on the front door of her home. Each time, the soldiers were looking for one of her sons.

Four of those 10 sons are now in Israeli prisons, three charged with murdering or attempting to murder Palestinians who collaborated with the Israelis in the West Bank. A fifth son, Abdel Monaim, was shot to death in May by the Shin Bet, Israel’s security police, after he allegedly murdered one of its agents.

The Naji brothers--heroes to many Palestinians, terrorists to most Israelis--represent the essence of a political dilemma confronting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat today as they try to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward.

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Palestinians have made the fate of 5,543 prisoners in Israeli jails a litmus test not only for Israeli intentions but also for Arafat’s effectiveness and the credibility of his self-rule authority.

Prisoners’ clubs lobby the Palestinian Authority. Prisoners have embarrassed Arafat by sending letters to local newspapers, accusing the leadership of abandoning them and complaining of horrific conditions. They have launched hunger strikes, and their families have held sit-down strikes to underscore their demands.

“A big number of our families have a boy or a girl in prison,” said Ahmad Sayyad, director of the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners, a prisoners’ rights group in Jerusalem. “We believe, as Palestinians, that they are in prison because of the occupation. The people in the street do not support the peace process any longer because these prisoners are being held.”

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Faced with all this, Arafat and his aides have stressed to Israeli negotiators the urgency of freeing the prisoners.

In his last meeting with Arafat, Rabin was persuaded to establish a high-level joint committee to set more lenient guidelines for releasing prisoners. Rabin met with Israeli ministers on the committee Wednesday, and Israel Radio reported that they agreed to announce--possibly after meeting with Arafat today--the release of 10 of 35 female prisoners.

Another 500 prisoners are expected to be released by the beginning of February to mark the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

Most of the remaining prisoners, an Israeli army spokesman said, were convicted of serious crimes. More than 200 are serving terms for killing Israeli soldiers or civilians. Another 1,000 are members of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has vowed to destroy the Israeli-Palestinian accord by any means.

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Releasing such people earns Rabin no credit with Israeli voters, and polls already show a steady decline in his popularity.

The Israeli army’s policy is to release no one with “Jewish blood” on his hands and to require that violent offenders sign a statement pledging that they will not use violence to oppose the Israeli-Palestinian accord. The new committee must drop those standards for any significant release of prisoners to occur, Israeli security sources said.

Israel says that, although the Palestinian Authority agreed to ensure that prisoners released into its custody stayed in areas controlled by the authority, it allowed most of the men to slip back to their homes in the West Bank.

In addition, Rabin sees the prisoners as a bargaining chip with Arafat. Rabin has been pressuring Arafat to accept only a partial Israeli pullout of its troops from Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank before holding Palestinian elections there. He has also been trying to prod Arafat into cracking down on Hamas and other factions violently opposed to the peace accords.

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Israel maintains that it has, in fact, met its obligations under the terms of the pact that Israel and the PLO signed in May. Israel agreed then to release 5,000 Palestinians within five weeks of the accord’s signing. But it also agreed to “continue to negotiate the release” of remaining prisoners. Palestinian officials assert that the talks have not been carried out in good faith.

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“I’m waiting for my sons to get out of jail and to go to Gaza and shoot Arafat!” stormed Mohammed Yusef Naji, 58, father of the Naji brothers. “What are we getting from this Palestinian government? All they have done is to weaken our cause and to surrender to the Jews!”

Naji makes no apologies for his sons’ actions. Nor does he blame them for the family’s woes. The army demolished their house five years ago, when sons Nasr and Sharif were arrested on suspicion of killing collaborators; the family has been living in an abandoned house nearby ever since.

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“I never tried to stop them,” Naji said of his sons’ violence. “I supported them. We were under occupation, and we had the right to resist.”

Behind him, on the walls of his home, a gallery of photographs of the brothers--jailed and dead--is the only adornment.

“This peace that everyone thinks is peace is no peace at all,” Naji said. “It is all just a lie. In the day, they talk about peace. At night, they surround your house and take your sons.”


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