Amid anger toward US policies across the Middle East, there is at least one corner of this tumultuous region where America is being praised.
Drive 15 minutes south from Bethlehem, turning off on a winding road with olive groves and open fields, and you’ll find Rafideh. The village has just welcomed one of their sons home after 23 years in prison, thanks to a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
“When Kerry’s wife entered the hospital, we asked God for her to get better because he is a mediator,” says Khaled Asakreh, basking in his newfound freedom at a luncheon held in his honor this week. “We all believe that the USA plays a very great role.”
Mr. Asakreh was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991 for his fatal stabbing of Annie Ley, a French tourist dining at the Bethlehem hotel where he worked toward the tail end of the Palestinian intifada.
Many Israelis consider him and the 25 other prisoners who were released a week ago to be terrorists. All were jailed for murder or attempted murder, and most of the victims were Israeli Jews. Some say it will take a generation or more before Israelis will be able to accept the idea of making peace with people who have committed such brutal crimes, still seared on the national consciousness.
But Asakreh says he is a different man now.
“I have changed completely,” says Asakreh, speaking in Arabic with his nephew translating. “I have a new vision, that the solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] doesn’t come in violent ways.”
Asakreh was 18 years old when he went to jail, and bounced around from one Israeli facility to another. For a little over two years, he lived in a cell next to Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian prisoner sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela.
Dr. Barghouti was jailed with five life sentences for his involvement in the second intifada. He has since espoused civil disobedience in protest of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Fluent in Hebrew, he taught his fellow prisoners the Israelis’ language and served as a role model.
“He was like a father to all the prisoners,” says Asakreh, whose own parents died while he was in prison.
His family built him a house in expectation of his release. As a veteran prisoner he has been collecting a monthly salary of 8,000 shekels ($2,250) from the Palestinian Authority, which will continue for life. Now, he is looking for a wife, and trying to put the past behind him.
In his first week out of prison, Asakreh still put his clothes under the bed when he went to sleep, woke up early, and stood in line for breakfast – part of a routine he had grown accustomed to during 23 years in prison.
But no one has recorded his voice, asked for his fingerprints, taken his mug shot, or examined him naked, which he says was part of the prison routine.
Now he can freely use a cellphone, unlike the days when prisoners waited for relatives to smuggle phones into jail by hiding them in grape leaves stuffed with rice. Visitors would also conceal small, tightly folded letters in empty caplets of drugs – all tactics the Israeli prison authorities caught on to.
Though visits were infrequent, and restricted to close relatives such as siblings or parents, a prisoner organization helped educate him and other political prisoners so that they could better advocate on behalf of the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom.
“I consider myself as a leader in peaceful ways, not in violent ways,” says Asakreh, who is enthusiastic about the peace talks now under way. “I am completely optimistic … all Palestinians are very optimistic, if both sides are serious.”