Two Mothers Pine for Sons As Mideast Peace Churns On

Prisoners in Israeli jails will be a key issue as Palestinian Authority and Israel begin final peace talks in coming months

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's 6 a.m. and Wadha Chirwany, a Palestinian woman, is jostling for a spot in the long line forming outside a prison in this coastal city for her regular visit to her son, who has been in Israeli prisons for six years.

It's shivering cold and rainy, but Mrs. Chirwany, wrapped in the embroidered dress and loose scarf emblematic of Palestinian villagers, pays little attention as she waits to submit a sweater to be delivered to her son.

The Chirwany family, now living in East Jerusalem, is used to this trek by bus that starts at 5 a.m. every other Friday and often ends in late afternoon, all for a 45-minute visit with her son Jihad.

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Chirwany's husband is unable to work, so this mother of eight wishes Jihad could be free so he could support the family.

One of thousands

Like thousands of Palestinians with family members in Israeli jails, she thinks her son should be set free in this era of reconciliation that started in 1993 with the Israel-PLO peace accords.

For her it would be the beginning of healing the wounds of five decades of Israeli-Palestinian strife. But ultimately the issue will have to be worked out in final-status talks that are to start within two months.

Jihad was arrested in 1991 when he was a teenage participant in the intifadah, or uprising, against Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza.

She sees the acts he committed as legitimate freedom-fighting before the truce was declared.

Jihad's records show he was found guilty of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. He was also accused of leading a cell of youths, during which time he planned to commit either a knife attack or bombing.

His family says it's inconceivable that as a teenager Jihad could have done anything so grave. They say the Israelis forced a confession out of him.

The Chirwanys are among the many Palestinians who constantly pressure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to win freedom for prisoners in Israeli jails. Last summer, Chirwany was one of many mothers who went on a hunger strike in protest of her son's imprisonment.

Acknowledging that the issue is an emotional one touching many lives, the 1993 peace accords stipulated that Israel periodically have prisoner releases as confidence-building gestures. Palestinian prisoner groups say 5,000 remain. A prison spokeswoman puts the number at 2,200.

When Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a deal to resume implementing the fragile peace accords Jan. 15, Israel made new commitments to release prisoners. It's unclear if Jihad, who is to serve until 2003 but could be released by 2000 for good behavior, will be one of them.

Reaching through the gate

Inside the prison visiting room three hours after their families arrived, the men are finally let in. Family members jump and wave like relatives picking up a loved one at the airport.

As the men find their families, grown men peck each other with kisses through metal meshing that separates them.

Freshly shaven, Jihad is elated to see his family. He tells them he's been good and has been fasting for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by dawn-to-dusk abstention.

Chirwany puts her finger through one of the square-inch fence openings - the closest alternative to holding his hand.

Jihad, who says he has 16 prisoners in his cell, explains why he did the things that landed him here. "I did it for land and freedom," he says. But he says he is hopeful of a future of peace and of starting work.

His older brother Khamal, however, is afraid Jihad will have trouble finding a job. He worries that the education his brother has missed will keep him unemployed. If so, they're hoping their sister, who married an American and moved to Brooklyn, can help him find work in the United States.

"He doesn't look healthy. He has lost weight," Chirwany says as she leaves the prison. "But I am happy, I am very happy."

"That only lasts a day or two," Khamal says when she's not listening, "and then she is sad and missing him again."

Joyce Boim misses her son, too. But he isn't coming home.

He was killed last May while waiting for a bus to take him home to Jerusalem from a class at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. After a band of Palestinian opponents of the peace process shot him, they fled to Ramallah, a Palestinian-controlled town.

For every Chirwany family who wants their son released, there is a Boim family who cannot imagine how the Israeli government can consider letting convicted criminals go free.

Just as the Palestinian Authority (PA) is pressed to obtain prisoner releases from the Israelis, Mr. Netanyahu is under pressure by victims' families not to set Palestinian convicts loose.

But just as Israel promised to do so in the Hebron accord, Arafat has pledged to consider Israel's outstanding requests to extradite Palestinians being held in PA prisons. Israel considers past refusals a violation of the accords, which are unclear on the specifics of the issue.

One of David's alleged killers is among those whom his mother says should be handed over to Israel. Many convicts are freed, she says, after a short sentence by the PA.

"One they found, and he's in Ramallah, and the other is at large," she says. "Any of these [Palestinian] cities, they're cities of refuge for terrorists."

For many Israelis like the Boim family, it is hard to support that peace when the blood and tears have not ended.

"I don't feel it's a peace process," says Mrs. Boim, who moved here from New York City 12 years ago. "When a [real] peace agreement is signed, the blood stops flowing."

She never agreed with the land-for-peace formula that is the basis for the peace process, and her son's death convinced her of its folly.

Sitting in a Jerusalem cafe she speaks with a kind demeanor about her son. He loved to travel, volunteered in the national ambulance corps, and was always smiling. He was studying for the equivalent of the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and was on his way from a prep course for it when he was shot.

Thousands attended his funeral, many people the family did not know. It was the week before Israeli elections last year, and the right-wing Likud party politicians came to pay their condolences.

Left-wing Labor officials didn't, she says, because they were afraid of a hostile reception.

As an Orthodox Jew, her faith helps her cope. So do her son's friends who come to see if she is OK. "Once they go on, it will be harder," she says sadly.

She looks out the window and her eyes seem to catch something. "I see Arabs, and I think, 'This could be David's killer right here.' They walk around freely."

No regrets

But David's death has never made her regret moving to Israel, or sending her sons to school in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as their future state. "This is our country, and we can't stop living in it," she says.

But her loss has made her more outspoken in her criticism of the peace accords.

The prisoner-release controversy seems to hit home most.

"If they were put in jail, it was for a reason," she says emphatically.

She hesitates, then lowers her voice. "I just fear that they shouldn't be roaming around freely and orchestrating another attack.

"It won't bring my David back, but at least I can avoid letting this happen to another family."

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