Israel's Prisoner Release Hits At Key Palestinian Discontent
RAMALLAH, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — FOR Maisoon al-Wihaidi, the latest Israel-PLO peace accord will come alive only when her daughter walks through the front door of the sumptuous family home here.
''I just want to see her free. These are the best years of her life,'' Mrs. Wihaidi told the Monitor on the eve of the signing of the second phase of the accord extending Palestinian self-rule to more than one-third of the West Bank.
The daughter, Abeer al-Wihaidi, has served 17 months of a 17-year sentence for her conviction as an accomplice in the December 1991 drive-by shooting of a West Bank Jewish settler, Zvi Klein.
An engineering student at Bir Zeit University near here when arrested in 1992, Ms. Wihaidi was found by the Israeli court to be the commander of a PLO underground guerrilla unit responsible for the settler's murder.
In the wrangling over the release of about 5,500 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, Wihaidi has become the focus of an emotional controversy over whether Palestinians found responsible for Israeli deaths should be freed.
Israel agreed to free 1,300 prisoners immediately after signing the accord yesterday, including women, young people, the infirm, and those who have served 10 years of their sentence. About 700 are political prisoners and 600 common criminals.
Israel insists that it will not free prisoners directly involved in killing Jews.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has intervened on Wihaidi's behalf. In several phone calls with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, he has insisted that all 28 women prisoners, including five implicated in Israeli deaths, be freed. Mr. Weizman agreed to consider the request.
Abeer's case captures the intense emotions evoked by the prisoner releases and underscores the rocky road ahead for Palestinians and Jews.
Maisoon Wihaidi, the mother of five daughters and a son, is a director-general in the Social Affairs Department of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority - set up last year to administer interim self-rule.
She is a passionate believer in the peace process and dreams of the day when Palestinians and Jews will be able to live together in the same territory - although she says this is a distant dream.
The new family home, built with the help of the community after their previous home was demolished by Israeli rockets and bulldozers two days after Abeer's conviction, resonates with their daughter's presence.
One of Abeer's embroidered dresses, the only piece salvaged from the demolition, is the centerpiece on the living-room wall, near framed embroidery depicting the Palestinian flag, a manacled hand, and a burning candle, made by Abeer in prison.
The mother tries to explain how her daughter's political experience led to her guerrilla activity.
''My husband was arrested in 1975 for his involvement in a committee of Fatah [Mr. Arafat's faction of the PLO], and Abeer, then seven years old, watched the Israeli soldiers take him away,'' Mrs. Wihaidi says.
The younger Abeer regularly visited her father in jail, where he was kept for two years.
When he was released, he battled to get an Israeli identity card, and Abeer frequently watched him being manhandled and searched by Israeli soldiers.
''Abeer is a sensitive and intelligent person. She was very angry and afraid when she saw what was happening to her father,'' her mother says, adding that Abeer began attending demonstrations at the age of 11.
Abeer's father, Mohammed al-Wihaidi, a Jerusalem-area officer for the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, is in Washington with the Palestinian delegation at Arafat's invitation. He wants to make sure the final agreement on the release of Palestinian prisoners includes the release of his daughter.
At Bir Zeit University, Abeer saw students staging violent protests injured and killed by Israeli soldiers, and she became an activist. ''She began to realize that demonstrations were not enough,'' Mrs. Wihaidi says.
Mrs. Wihaidi claims that after her arrest, Abeer was subjected to physical and psychological torture, both during her 17-day interrogation and over 52 days of detention in the Russian Compound cells in Jerusalem. She was later transferred to the Talmond Prison near Haifa.
Abeer is regarded as a heroine by Palestinians. In Israel, she is regarded as a murderer who should serve out her sentence.
Right-wing settlers wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Tuesday demanding that Wihaidi be kept behind bars.
In the agreement for the release of prisoners, another 1,360 - 400 political and 960 criminal - are to be freed just before Palestinian elections are held by early next year. This second phase will include the balance of those convicted before the signing of the Israel-PLO accord two years ago and the third phase, at a time yet to be decided, all those convicted since the signing of the accord.
The future of the last 2,200 prisoners will be determined during talks to begin next year.
''I believe in the peace process, and I want it to succeed,'' Mrs. Wihaidi says. ''There must be an end to the bloodshed and the suffering of the two peoples.''