Like many Palestinian mothers, Latifa Hmeid remembers her sons’ arrest dates as easily as their birthdays.
Three of her 12 children are in prison. One son is serving “nine life terms plus three years” for killing at least 10 Palestinians accused of spying for Israelis. Another son, now 22, has been in jail since he was 14.
And like other mothers, Hmeid, 51, wants her boys to come home.
She has joined a volatile wave of daily demonstrations demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians who remain in Israeli jails.
The dispute over the prisoners has sparked the newest crisis in efforts to reach a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it may ultimately provoke an even larger crisis between the Palestinian people and their leader, Yasser Arafat, who is seen as having failed those who fought on his behalf.
For ordinary Palestinians, freedom for loved ones behind bars ranks as perhaps the single most emotional issue confronting them.
The prisoner issue was dealt with during side talks at the marathon negotiations on the Wye Plantation in Maryland that ended in a peace accord in October. Palestinians say they reached a verbal agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifying that a set number of prisoners would be released. They say they came away envisioning a Northern Ireland-style arrangement in which even those who fought in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be freed.
But Israel, turning aside Palestinian demands, refuses to free inmates who have “shed blood"--either killed or harmed with intent to kill. With Palestinian violence at prisoner demonstrations escalating, Israel this week suspended further troop withdrawals from the West Bank, a deployment required under the U.S.-brokered peace agreement signed Oct. 23.
On Thursday, Netanyahu defended his decision to suspend the Wye agreement until Arafat recants his plan to declare an independent state in May.
Netanyahu also demanded that the Palestinian Authority president refrain from pushing the prisoner cause to incite unrest. Arafat labeled Netanyahu’s moves a violation of the accord.
Tension over the prisoners appears likely to increase: On Thursday, supporters of the inmates vowed to step up their campaign in the days before the Dec. 12 arrival of President Clinton, and they urged Palestinian leaders to boycott Clinton’s appearance in the Gaza Strip to dramatize their point.
The protesters, who attacked an Israeli soldier and passing Jewish motorists Wednesday, have focused their anger primarily on Israel.
But within each demonstration, fresh fury is being directed at Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, marking additional slippage in his popularity among those who have been his most loyal supporters.
“Arafat sold out,” Hmeid said in the living room of the house she occupies with her other children in Ramallah’s sprawling Amari refugee camp, a traditional stronghold of Arafat’s Fatah movement.
Such sentiment is spreading. In recent days, demonstrators stoned the Gaza home of Arafat’s second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas, and disrupted the opening of Arafat’s prized new Gaza airport.
At a rally in Bethlehem, placards lumped Arafat with Netanyahu. Others used Arafat’s nom de guerre in a scathing rebuke: “Abu Ammar has betrayed your children.”
After the ceremonious signing of the Wye agreement, Palestinian officials told their people that they had secured the release of 750 “political prisoners” and others being held as a result of their fight against Israel.
When the first group of 250 prisoners was freed Nov. 20, however, the appearance of about 150 common criminals stunned waiting families and embarrassed the Palestinian leadership.
Netanyahu says he never agreed to release Palestinians with “blood on their hands” and said Israel has the final say on who gets out.
Arafat, in a meeting this week, asked Clinton to resolve the dispute, according to Ahmed Tibi, a senior advisor to Arafat.
Tibi accused the Israeli government of misleading the Palestinians on the releases and of deceptively padding the release rosters with car thieves and other common criminals. Of about 2,100 Palestinian “political prisoners,” Tibi said, about 300 killed Israelis and an additional 1,000 are members of Hamas or similar militant Islamic organizations and not eligible for release. That would leave at least 700 supporters of Fatah and other pro-Arafat organizations who Tibi said should be freed.
“These are the soldiers of Yasser Arafat,” Tibi said.
The Israeli government disputes those figures, however, saying that only 200 or so inmates meet the criteria for release.
Most of those whom the Palestinian leadership wants freed fought on Arafat’s behalf against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, either violently or politically, especially during the six-year intifada, or uprising, that ended earlier this decade.
Arafat’s failure to secure the freedom of his “soldiers,” as Tibi put it, is exacting a high political price, analysts said.
The suspicion among many Palestinians is that Arafat, eager to reach any agreement, relented on the prisoner issue and underestimated the backlash he would face.
Publicly, Palestinian officials are trying to redirect the blame squarely on Israel. And that led to the Israeli accusations that the Palestinians were inciting their people to violence against Jews, in violation of the peace agreement.
“This is shaking Arafat’s credibility, weakening the Palestinian Authority, and the street is very angry,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, a think tank.
The Hmeid family is among those who are angry and ready to abandon all loyalty to Arafat. Two of the sons did not commit murder, their mother says, and have served most of their nine- and 10-year sentences, making them theoretically eligible to be freed under peace accords.
But the other son, 28-year-old Nassar, killed repeatedly, by his family’s account.
During the intifada, he killed at least 10 “collaborators"--Palestinians who spied for Israeli forces and who are considered traitors to their people.
“Nassar would not always kill them right away,” his mother said. “Sometimes he would capture them, interrogate them for a while and tell them to stop collaborating with the Israelis. If they changed their path, he would not hurt them. But if they kept it up, they would be killed.”
Nassar commanded a military wing of Fatah. Another son, Abdul Menem, was killed in 1994 after he killed Israeli agents, Hmeid said.
Like many mothers, she proudly displayed photographs of her sons. One hanging on the wall shows Abdul Menem dressed in camouflage fatigues and pointing a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol in the air. In another of the family photos, he holds two Kalashnikovs aloft. In yet another, younger son Islam, at age 8, is shown aiming an M-16.
Israel, which has freed thousands of prisoners since the original 1993 Oslo accords, argues that the release of someone like Nassar Hmeid would endanger the security and peace of mind of its citizens.
Palestinians and some human rights advocates argue that, as in Northern Ireland and other postwar societies, the goal of reconciliation should outweigh the need to continue punishment.