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Palestinians Debate Prisoner Release

By Dana Budeiri
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 1998; 9:03 a.m. EST


MEGIDDO PRISON, Israel (AP) -- Palestinian men, women and even children huddle together for hours each day in a cramped, guarded tent with no bathrooms, no running water, nowhere to sit but the ground and nothing to look at but the barbed-wire surrounding them in Israel's maximum-security prison.

These aren't the prisoners, they're the visiting relatives.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have passed through Israeli jails over three decades of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some served three months, some 30 years, mostly on charges of militant or political acts against the Jewish state.

Those who were not arrested had at least one family member who was, making the issue of prisoner releases in the wake of peace deals with Israel one of the most emotional quests for the Palestinian public and its leadership.

It has united members from every political and social group in Palestinian society, and divided those on the Israeli side.

``When two peoples at war make peace, they hand over each other's soldiers and prisoners and treat each other like equals. There will be no peace between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people as long as one Palestinian security prisoner remains in jail,'' said Hisham Abdel Razek, who served 21 years in Israeli jails and is now Minister for Prisoner Affairs in Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Widespread demonstrations for the release of 2,400 so-called security prisoners -- often violent and often orchestrated by Palestinian Authority officials -- have been held almost daily since the two sides signed the latest Mideast accord in Washington in October.

Palestinians had hoped the deal would mean the release of their relatives. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, insists that none of the 750 promised releases will include those involved in plotting or executing attacks against Israelis.

The United States, which brokered the deal, has not backed up Palestinian claims that Israel is in violation of the agreement on the prisoner issue, though it has hinted that the spirit of the accord has been harmed by the dispute. President Clinton has promised to try to resolve the problem.

But with the issue burning in the streets and at the negotiating table, even veteran Israeli security chief Gidon Ezra, now a lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud party, says the hard line on prisoners needs to be re-examined.

``The release of murderers is one of the most difficult things that can happen. But on the other hand ... there are those who have been in jail for more than 20 years and we need to tell them there is a light at the end of the tunnel,'' Ezra told Israel radio.

Every day, hundreds of Palestinians travel through several Israeli checkpoints from homes in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip to prisons such as Megiddo in northern Israel to visit jailed fathers, brothers and sons held in heavily guarded tent camps on the prison grounds.

Among the 200 relatives waiting hours in the visitors holding pen Tuesday was 4-year-old Abeer who came to see her two brothers, jailed two years ago on suspicion of membership in the militant Hamas organization, which opposes peace with Israel and has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.

An elderly father whose son has been incarcerated for three months without charges complained about intimidating waiting conditions.

``We are confined like sheep, surrounded by garbage. There is no running water, no bathrooms. If these are the conditions we face, how do you imagine the situation is in there?'' he said, adding that he was frightened to give his name or that of his son.

Alia Duweikat came to see her son Adnan, who is on the fourth year of a seven-year sentence for membership in Hamas. Like many Palestinians, much of her anger about the prisoner issue is directed toward Arafat, whom many accuse of abandoning the prisoners during peace negotiations.

``They have forgotten them. The leaders have forgotten the sacrifices made for their country and people,'' she said.

After five hours and two security checks, Duweikat was allowed into the visiting hall for her monthly visit with her son. The two may not hug or exchange large gifts; they may only touch hands through a metal fence that runs through the hall. Prisoners are on one side, relatives are on the other.

Hundreds more are denied entry into Israel to visit relatives, a handful of whom have never been charged, tried or convicted, but who serve six-month sentences imposed by Israeli military courts that are easily renewed and hard to fight.

For Palestinians, peace with Israel begins with their own state and the release of their prisoners, explained Abdel Razek, the minister for prisoner affairs.

``People have worth and Palestinians also have pride and dignity,'' he said. ``You can't make peace between a master and a slave.''



(c) Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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