Arafat, Peres fail to agree


JERUSALEM -- To Farah Raba Barghouti, peering at the world from one good eye and 65 hard years, the peace talks with Israel have done nothing to free her two grown sons from prison.

"Those negotiations are like cooking stones for a guest," said the old Palestinian woman, wiping her brow as she sat on the ground outside a Red Cross office. "The stones never get cooked, and the guest never gets fed."

Mrs. Barghouti joined demonstrations held throughout the West Bank yesterday in support of Palestinian prisoners who began a fitful and partial hunger strike 15 days ago to pressure Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for their release.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met yesterday at the border to the Gaza Strip in an attempt to resolve problems in their peace plan signed in September 1993.

But eight hours of talks failed to meet their deadline of July 1 for agreeing on plans to withdraw Israeli troops from Arab towns in the West Bank and to resolve other issues, including the Palestinian prisoners.

The fate of 5,540 Palestinians still held in Israeli prisons has become a stumbling block in negotiations. The issue has reignited the Palestinian demonstrations that had largely disappeared since the peace accord. The protests have led to clashes and deaths.

"There is real solidarity for a change. All the Palestinian people support the prisoners," said Zuhdia Abu-Shalbak, whose son, Ahmed, 22, has been imprisoned for three years.

Most of the prisoners were arrested for political activities during the Palestinian "intifada" or uprising. Two-thirds were tried and given prison terms; others have been held without trial for questioning or "administrative detention."

When Israel signed the peace agreement with the Palestinians, it held about 11,000 Palestinians in prison. About half have been released gradually in groups, often when Israel wanted to appease Palestinian demands.

Abdul Rizzak, 28, was among them. He had served four years of a six-year term for organizing opposition to the Israeli occupation.

"We thought once there is peace, everyone would be freed. It is only fair," he said yesterday in Ramallah, eight miles north of Jerusalem. Moments earlier, Israeli troops had clashed with the "shabab" -- youths-- who had set fire to tires in support of the prisoners.

"Is it right for me to be released and for my colleague from the same cell to be still there?" asked Mr. Rizzak, who makes his living trading currencies on the street corner.

Palestinians see the prisoners as "freedom fighters" and invariably compare them to American revolutionaries who resisted the British occupation. Israelis see them as "terrorists" who attacked soldiers and civilians.

TC About 300 of the prisoners are serving life sentences, convicted of being involved in serious attacks on Israelis. Israeli officials have vowed they will not be freed.

"We will differentiate between prisoners with blood on their hands and those who committed other crimes," Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said Friday.

The other inmates may be released after negotiations, Israel has said. But it insists that prisoners accept the peace accords, which opposition-group Palestinians have refused to do. Mr. Arafat has accused Israel of using the prisoners as bargaining chips.

To Palestinians, serving in prison is not a mark of shame but a badge of honor. By some estimates, nearly a half-million Palestinians have passed through Israeli prisons since 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians bristle at the reference to their "bloody hands," pointing out that Israeli security forces killed five times as many Palestinians than Palestinians killed Israelis during the intifada, from 1988 through 1994.

"Do they think their hands are clean, and ours are not?" asked Mrs. Barghouti, whose two sons have together spent 30 years in prison, one of them for murder. "Is our blood so cheap, and theirs so expensive?"

An Israeli group called "Victims of Terror" has pressured Mr. Rabin to demand that the Palestinians turn over some suspects in killings before he releases any of the Palestinian prisoners.

And Mr. Arafat is under pressure from the prisoners not to sign any further agreement with Israel until Israel agrees to release them.

"We were your soldiers during the war, we will be your soldiers in peace," the prisoners wrote to Mr. Arafat at the beginning of their strike. "Don't abandon us in the battlefield."

But because of divisions among political factions, not all the prisoners joined the hunger strike. And there were reports yesterday that inmates of several of the 19 prisons have abandoned the protest.

Dr. Mohammed Jadallah, a physician fasting in support of the prisoners at the Red Cross office in Arab East Jerusalem, said they were informed the prisoners had "suspended" the hunger strike to eat for a day. Other Palestinians denied the report.

Supporters of the prisoners were angry that Mr. Arafat had not obtained a release of the prisoners.

"The prisoners have been sold out by Arafat," said Dr. Jadallah, who himself has been imprisoned several times, "and Arafat will get peanuts and promises."

A 16-year-old Palestinian youth was shot and killed in Hebron yesterday. Israeli Radio said he had attempted to stab a soldier and had been shot by other soldiers. Palestinian reports said Ibrahim Hadir Daif was shot without provocation by Baruch Marzel, a leader of the Jewish settlers who live in Hebron.

Mr. Marzel, speaking by telephone from his home last night, implied he was involved in the incident but refused to discuss it, saying he wanted first to talk to his lawyer.

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