Released Palestinians discover a new Mideast; Jailed for violence against Israel, inmates find peace under way


RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The political map of his homeland has changed dramatically since Mahmoud Abu Aesha was jailed 7 1/2 years ago for being a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization fighting the Israeli occupation.

Now the leaders of the PLO and the Israeli occupiers have forged a peace agreement. That pact and others enabled Palestinians to elect a president -- none other than Yasser Arafat -- and to establish a Palestinian police force and to control the major cities on the West Bank.

And yesterday, after years of waiting, Abu Aesha was set free in a long overdue prisoner release required in those agreements. Israel's newprime minister, Ehud Barak, made good on his pledge to implement the latest peace accord signed Saturday in Egypt that required the release of 350 political prisoners in two phases.

Yesterday's release of 199 inmates represented the first tangible evidence that the peace process, suspended under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was back on track. Control of civil matters over an additional 7 percent of the West Bank from Israeli to Palestinian hands is to follow.

But the prisoner release was the crucial event for both Palestinians and Israelis -- not that they all were happy about it.

"It was a sign of hope for the people," Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian lawmaker, said of the prisoner releases. "Mr. Netanyahu did one thing in three years -- destroy the hope, the confidence, the trust for both sides."

"We are destroying the peace process," said Meir Indor, the executive director of an Israeli victims of terror group. "The message is, terror does pay. You'll sit five to six years in prison and you'll be free."

Mahmoud Abu Aesha's journey home began after dawn yesterday. After signing a declaration that he would no longer participate in violence, he boarded a prison bus for the hour-or-so drive from Ashkelon, the Israeli city on the Mediterranean coast, to an Israeli military camp outside Ramallah on the West Bank.

Several Israeli protesters tried to block the path of the bus as it pulled into the Ofer military camp. "Death to Terrorists," read one Israeli sign.

The inmates, their hands bound with plastic restraints, flashed the "V" for victory sign from the bus windows and waved to the few Palestinians standing amid a throng of TV cameras, reporters and photographers.

"Oh my son, Oh my son Wael, with the beautiful eyes. ," sang 60-year-old Kafamuhmed Ali, as she spotted her 25-year-old son through the bus window.

Ali's son was 16 years old when he received a life sentence in 1990 for killing a "collaborator," a Palestinian who cooperated with the Israeli military forces before the 1993 Oslo peace accord was signed.

"He sacrificed for his country," she said of Wael, the last of her four sons to be released from Israeli prisons. "His future is lost."

From Ofer camp, the prisoners were transferred to a Palestinian bus for the ride into Ramallah. As the bus drove into the yard of the Palestinian security police compound in Ramallah -- an Israeli detention center during the occupation -- sirens blared and the waiting crowd cheered.

The bearded Abu Aesha, a blue baseball cap on his head and a Palestinian Arab head scarf tied about his neck, stepped from the bus as relatives and strangers rushed to hug him.

Palestinian bagpipers played and women well-wishers ululated with joy.

Abu Aesha, serving an eight-year prison term for membership in Yasser Arafat's political organization, Fatah, buried his face in the embrace of a cousin and emerged red-eyed and tearful.

"My happiness and my anger are mixed together," he said.

In a few hours, the 40-year-old was to be reunited with his wife and two daughters in their home village of Telfit, outside Nablus. His youngest daughter, Ansar, was born in 1992 while he was in the interrogation wing of an Israeli prison.

"I really don't know her," he said.

But he couldn't forget the estimated 1,300 Palestinian prisoners who remain behind bars.

Reiterating the sentiments of most of the freed prisoners, Abu Aesha said, "Until the Israelis release all the Palestinian prisoners, I can't say anything good about them."

But he said he is committed to peace: "The jail made me stronger in my obligation to my own country to push the peace process forward."

Israeli critics of the prisoner release and victims of terrorist attacks have assailed the Barak government for agreeing to free 350 Palestinians, including those who wounded Israelis or killed Palestinians who cooperated with Israeli security forces.

Dov Kalmanovich, a 42-year-old accountant from Jerusalem, was among the few Israelis protesting at the Ofer camp gate. His face bore the disfiguring scars of a victim of terror.

In January 1988, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into Kalmanovich's car, engulfing him in flames. He spent a year in the hospital recovering from the burns.

"We want peace. We are the wounded who suffered so much," said Kalmanovich. "To make peace is one thing, to take terrorists out of jail is another."

While Israel carried out its obligations under the revised Wye River Memorandum, it also closed off its borders with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in anticipation of the Jewish New Year holiday, which begins tonight and lasts through Sunday.

Under the revised Wye accords, the Palestinians are scheduled to present to Israel on Monday a list of the members of their police, which they are committed to reduce to an authorized strength of 30,000.

On that same day begin the so-called "final status" talks that will decide the key outstanding issues of the peace process -- the fate of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the plight of the refugees.

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