Release of Palestinian prisoners tangled in years of suffering, rage; Jailed men are seen as freedom fighters or common criminals


KUBER, Occupied West Bank -- To Palestinians, Fachri Barghouti is a hero, a freedom fighter who helped kill a Jewish bus driver in the war against the Israeli occupiers. Sentenced to a life prison term, he has spent 20 years in an Israeli jail.

To Israelis, Barghouti and others like him are men with blood on their hands. For their crimes they should stay in prison.

But Barghouti's crime took place in 1978 when the Palestine Liberation Organization waged a terrorist campaign against Israel. Today, Israel and the Palestinians are at peace, but the release of prisoners like Barghouti was the central point of passionate disagreement in the way of a deal that would revive their peace process.

It was a thorny political problem for both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"Arafat should insist on releasing the prisoners before doing anything else," said Shadi Barghouti, who was only 8 months old when his father went to prison.

Israeli victims feel passionately the opposite.

"All the time, all the time, they are renewing our pain," said Sylvia Hatuka, whose 28-year-old son Shlomo was shot dead by a terrorist 13 years ago. "Why should they release terrorists with blood on their hands?"

Once Barak releases Palestinian prisoners with "blood on their hands" he "will get what he deserves -- he won't be prime minister."

She weeps at the thought of her son and what might have been if he had not been murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

"I waited for him to get married. I'm a widow, without a husband. I don't know what to do with myself."

As many as 2,000 Palestinian security prisoners are in Israeli jails. Fachri Barghouti, 45, is one of them. A house painter, Barghouti joined Arafat's Fatah political movement as a young man, according to his wife, Samira, and son, Shadi.

He joined five other Fatah members in an April 1978 attack on a bus driver near the West Bank settlement of Halamish, about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Barghouti participated in the attack to avenge the death of his brother, who was killed in south Lebanon in 1976 during an Israeli bombing raid, according to his family.

His family's arguments about why Barghouti should be released reflect the sentiments of many Palestinians who have waited for years to be reunited with their imprisoned husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and uncles.

"That was a different era," said Shadi's mother, Samira, referring to the late 1970s when her husband was active in the Fatah movement. "Even the Israelis have killed many of us."

"My father was arrested in the 1970s when the time was just for resistance," said Barghouti's 22-year-old son, Shadi. "Nobody talked about peace. If my father did what he did after Oslo, we might accept that phrase -- that he has blood on his hands. But why are we talking about this now?"

At the time of her husband's arrest, Samira Barghouti was pregnant with the couple's second child. The couple was living in Barghouti's home village of Kuber on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Then, Palestinian men joined the resistance movement, a struggle led by Yasser Arafat and others who now hold responsible positions in the peace-time government of the Palestinian Authority.

When Israel made peace with the Palestinians in 1993, Arafat and other top Palestinian leaders who had led the fight returned to the West Bank and Gaza a year later. The peace accords committed the Israelis to free Palestinian prisoners "as a confidence building measure." The releases dragged out over the years; suspicion replaced confidence.

"We are not benefiting from this peace. They are playing with our nerves. We don't want to see only the leadership benefit," said Barghouti's sister-in-law, Asmahan, as she sat in the three-story family home in Kuber. "We do not need peace with just the leadership."

Shadi Barghouti is an interior decorator now with plans for his own wedding. Shadi says he has known his father only as a prisoner in jail. During his monthly visits, his father is separated from him by a wire screen. The visiting room is crowded with other families and prisoners.

"I remember the one time I have hugged him," Shadi said.

It was a special occasion and prisoners were allowed to visit with their families without a barrier separating them.

"I was 14 years old. I cannot describe it. He's my father. But I never felt the feeling of a father and son. I have no memories with him," Shadi said. "I have never lived with him."

Over the years the family has received financial help -- ranging from $100 to $200 a month -- from the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority. Before then, Shadi says, his uncles cared for him, his brother and mother.

As the Fateh movement put aside the struggle to follow Arafat and the path toward peace, so did Barghouti, Shadi said. Twice before, he said, it seemed as though his father would be released from jail. Of the six men who took part in the murder of the bus driver, two fled to Jordan immediately and four were imprisoned. Of the four, only Shadi's father and cousin remain in jail, according to the son.

"We are not against Israel," said Shadi. "We are not against the peace. We just want our beloved people out."

But Sylvia Hatuka only remembers the night 13 years ago when her son Shlomo was killed. It was a Saturday evening just days before Passover.

"Where are you going?" Hatuka asked her son, a bus driver.

That night Shlomo Hatuka's bus route took him through the West Bank, near the settlement of Halamish, about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem.

"They reached Beit Aryeh," Hatuka said, referring to a nearby settlement in the area. "And they encountered three terrorists. They set a fire on the road to stop the bus."

Because the road was narrow, Hatuka's son was forced to stop the bus. "He couldn't turn around," the mother said.

The terrorists stormed the bus, firing a machine gun through the bus door. Her son was shot in the stomach. "He was buried on the eve of Passover," she said.

This was not the incident that Barghouti was involved in. But like him, two of the three Palestinians who killed her son are still in jail.

As far as Hatuka is concerned they should never be let out. "Why should they come out [flashing] a victory sign with their hands?" Hatuka demanded.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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