The sticking point in peace talks

Which Palestinian prisoners should be released from Israeli jails holds

Falistin Abu Ali is 22. When her father was her age, he shot and killed an Israeli settler in this West Bank city renowned for enmity between Arab and Jew. He has been in jail ever since.

That was in 1980, when Ms. Abu Ali was three years old. She spent her childhood with her siblings and mother, dependent on support from other family members in lieu of the father she barely knew.

Two decades later, much has changed. Abu Ali is now a university student. Fatah, the faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization whose ideology guided Abu Ali's father when he committed the murder, has made peace with Israel. Its leader, Yasser Arafat, has formed the Palestinian Authority, which provides Abu Ali with a part-time job in his preventive security force.

Abu Ali says that since her father's deed was done long before the Oslo peace deal was signed in 1993, it's time for her father to come home. "These things happened before the peace treaty, when the situation was one of war and occupation," says Abu Ali, who holds a part-time job with the Preventive Security force of the Palestinian Authority. "My father's dream was to establish a Palestinian state, and now I think he should have a role in building that state."

Whether he will is at the heart of the dispute now keeping Palestinian and Israeli negotiators from reaching an agreement to resume implementation of the Wye River accord, frozen late last year. Yesterday Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak set a deadline "two or three days from now" for an agreement to be reached. Pressure has been building for the two sides to sign an agreement in Egypt when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits later this week.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, says that the peace process is mired in the prisoner issue because the detainees are, for Palestinians, both the icons of their struggle for independence and a litmus test of the new Israeli government's sincerity. After three years of watching mutual trust vanish under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, Palestinians need a reason to restore confidence in their peace partners.

"These are people who have been sacrificing their lives for the cause," he says. "If these people are not released, what is left for people to think about their own future?... Palestinians are asking, 'How can we trust them again if they can't do this? Can we trust them to carry out the withdrawals?' "

According to an oral agreement attached to the Wye deal of October 1998, Israel agreed to release 750 prisoners in three stages. But with no fine print to refer to, each side had its own interpretation of what that meant.

Then-Prime Minister Netanyahu said that no prisoners "with blood on their hands" would be released, which he said necessitated adding common criminals to the mix. Of the 250 released late last year, 100 were "security prisoners" and the other 150 were detainees who had been convicted of crimes like car theft.

Disappointed, the Palestinians now say they want 650 prisoners released - all considered political detainees or "prisoners of war" by Palestinians. But the Mr. Barak's government has said it will uphold the no-blood policy and again include regular criminals.

But there have been conciliatory voices coming from corners of Barak's coalition, with several Cabinet ministers making statements in favor of releasing Palestinians who committed crimes before the Oslo deal. The head of Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, is reportedly suggesting that Barak might compromise by agreeing to release prisoners who were accessories to attacks on Israelis but not directly involved.

The very mention of prisoner releases stirs emotions on both sides - raising the hopes of Palestinians with relatives in jail and incensing Israelis who have lost loved ones to terrorist attacks. Among the grieving families who think Palestinians convicted of violent attacks should not be released is Esther Wachsman, who lost her son Nachshon in 1994. After being kidnapped and held hostage by members of Hamas, the Islamic militant group, the young soldier died during an Israeli Army attempt to rescue him.

"His absence is always felt. Any time there is a joyous occasion or a holiday, there's a feeling that there's someone who's not there with us who should be," says Mrs. Wachsman, who emigrated here from the United States 29 years ago. "But I don't believe in arguing from an emotional point of view. I'm not looking for a vendetta. I don't believe you can take one value like peace and trade it with the moral obligation and duty for a killer to carry out his sentence."

Wachsman says she can accept a desire to differentiate between Palestinians who committed acts of violence before the peace deal was reached and those - like her son's captors - who used violence even after the peace agreement. But she questions whether some perpetrators of pre-1993 attacks show any remorse, suggesting that should be part of the criteria for release.

Contrition, however, is a complicated concept. Palestinians usually express pride in the act that a brother, husband, or father has committed, which is seen only in the context of how it helped their struggle for freedom.

Israelis are, on the whole, still opposed to setting free Palestinians imprisoned for violent crimes. But outlooks are changing. The dovish Israeli group Peace Now, for one, supports the release of all Palestinian prisoners who committed crimes before Oslo.

But Yohanan Peres, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University and a leader of the Peace Now mission, says the probable release will not be popular with Israelis, and could present difficulties for Barak further down the road. "More frightening than a backlash is that if and when a terrorist act occurs, the government will be blamed for releasing those prisoners."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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