Palestinian amnesty is thorny issue for both sides

A bombing Monday that killed an Israeli was tied to question of jailed Palestinians.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After two weeks of tentative steps toward calm and reconciliation, Israelis and Palestinians have found themselves on a collision course over the highly sensitive issue of Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas declared it is ready to withdraw from the cease-fire in the name of thousands of Palestinians kept in Israeli jails, and Palestinian Authority (PA) officials spoke of a "very, very difficult situation."

"You cannot open up one road and tell people that this is peace," says Kamal Baghdadi, the mayor of Bureij, referring to the removal of Israeli army checkpoints last week on the main north-south thoroughfare in Gaza. "We need real evidence to show our families. The prisoners should now go home."

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The volatile issue was linked to a bombing Monday night that killed a 65-year-old Israeli woman. A fax to the Associated Press that claimed responsibility for the attack stated, in part: "Release the prisoners or the consequences will be grave."

Road map speed bump

The prisoner issue is touchy for both sides, involving family sensibilities, political vulnerabilities, and differing assessments of how releases would affect the tenuous relative calm that has been achieved. It threatens to hound the already distrustful partners as they slip and slide toward what Washington hopes will be implementation of an international peace blueprint, the road map.

PA leaders say their ability to gain substantial releases - including prisoners from all political factions - cuts to the heart of their own credibility.

"This cease-fire came about because of pressure from the prisoners and we have to give hope to them and to the entire Palestinian people that our government can succeed," says Hisham Abdul Raziq, the PA minister for prisoner affairs. According to the Red Cross, at the end of May there were 7,730 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, 990 of them administrative detainees.

The PA wants input

Mr. Abdul Raziq is demanding that Israel include the PA in its decisions on who will be released, rather than decide unilaterally, as it did Sunday, when the cabinet decided to set up an exclusively Israeli committee on releases, and ruled out the freeing of Hamas prisoners.

Israeli plans seem to rule out the kind of mass release called for by Palestinian groups. "People will be released in phases in small numbers depending on the Palestinian Authority's progress in implementing security requirements," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declining to specify numbers or timing.

Media reports said that about 350 prisoners are being considered for release, most of them administrative detainees whose detention orders expire soon.

Hamas, which made its agreement to the cease-fire conditional on the release of all of the prisoners, is vowing to renew armed operations over the issue. "For the calm to continue, the prisoners must be released," says Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader.

Israel argues that a more flexible stance would violate the sensitivities of the victims of terrorist attacks, and that freeing Hamas prisoners would boost the strength of that organization. "These are ideological organizations that want to continue their armed actions," says Mr. Gissin. He adds that a few people in Hamas not directly involved in violence might eventually be freed.

Refugees' concerns

With dozens of camp residents in jail, including Mohammed Taha, the most senior Gaza Hamas figure in custody, the fate of the prisoners preoccupies many residents of the Bureij refugee camp.

According to Baghdadi, Bureij has lost 86 people, with the fatalities ranging from a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed al-Dura, whose shooting was viewed across the world, to suicide bombers and Hamas and Fatah militia commanders.

And in a tightly knit society based on extended families, there are few families that are not related to, or do not know, a prisoner or his kin. "My son is in their hands, but he is only one among thousands," says Abdul Raziq Maayouf, sitting on the floor of his living room with peeling lavender walls, a small fan, and a gold framed portrait of a slain Hamas fighter, Salah Abu Deeb.

"I am suffering and my neighbors are suffering for me. We are talking about my son, a piece of my flesh and my heart," says Mr. Maayouf, a farmer. His son, Ibrahim, is serving a 27-month sentence for Hamas activities, he says. "I have seen him, he is healthy, but the Israeli government must understand that if they do not go on the straight road to peace, they will suffer just as we suffer."

In Israel, however, some families of victims of Palestinian attack say the government should not free any prisoners.

Roni Lerner, whose son Baruch was killed in a suicide attack against a Jerusalem cafe, says prisoners "must serve their sentences," and that the government's behavior shows a disregard for Israeli law. "Those who attempted or intended to carry out acts of terror constitute a danger to the public, even more so those who performed acts of terror. They pose a danger just as every potential or actual murderer does when he is freed."

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