After two decades in prison limbo, released Palestinian rebuilds his life

Khaled Asakreh was released seven months ago, after 22 years in an Israeli prison. Another batch of veteran Palestinian prisoners is awaiting release as part of John Kerry's peace efforts.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Khaled Asakreh talks about his newfound freedom in his living room, which is decorated by new curtains and couches, as well as plaques commemorating his 22-year imprisonment in Israeli jail, March 31, 2014.

Seven months after Palestinian prisoner Khaled Asakreh’s welcome-home luncheon, when a steady stream of everyone from relatives to Palestinian Authority officials stopped by to heartily congratulate him, life is quieter.

When visitors arrive on a recent evening, he is alone – a rarity for any Palestinian – in his gleaming new home, courtesy of the Palestinian Authority's strong financial support for prisoners. He has two TVs and four rooms of brand-new furniture all to himself, accompanied only by half a dozen plaques commemorating the 22 years he spent in prison. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian fighter turned peacemaker, gazes out from one in the dining room.

But soon there will be another addition: a wife. His fiancée, recommended by sisters-in-law after Mr. Asakreh tired of women chasing his perceived wealth, is everything he wanted: educated, mature, “and of course cute.”

“Since I was engaged, my feelings, my life – everything changed,” he says, looking noticeably more radiant than when the Monitor interviewed him upon his release in August.

Asakreh is one of 104 Palestinian prisoners whom Israel agreed to release in four batches as a confidence-building measure, which US Secretary of State John Kerry hoped would lead to direct peace talks between the two sides by the end of this month. Nearly all of the prisoners were arrested before the 1993 Oslo peace accords for involvement in fatal terrorist attacks, making the government’s decision to release them highly controversial.

Now Washington’s nine-month deadline for relaunching bilateral peace talks is looming, and the release of the fourth batch of prisoners is one of the major sticking points. Israel wants a guarantee that progress toward peace talks will continue beyond the end of April before it releases the final 26 prisoners, a move the PA has called “blackmail.” The PA is threatening to bail on peace negotiations if the prisoners, who were due to be released March 29, are not set free by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, 78 prisoners, including Asakreh, are rebuilding their lives after decades in prison. They have significant help – the PA pays all prisoners a handsome monthly stipend while in prison, which continues at a higher rate after their release, and provides some dental and health care benefits. They also enjoy celebrity status in their communities. 

But they are still unable to travel freely: Asakreh is limited to the Bethlehem area for the first year of his freedom, and it will be 10 years before he can travel abroad.

When Israeli army jeeps come through the village targeting kids throwing rocks, he steers clear.

“In prison I felt safe because I’m in their hands,” he says. “But now anyone can come and harass me or arrest me.”

After decades of sleeping in a prison bed so narrow that he would fall out if he rolled over, he sleeps on just a sliver of his huge new bed. And he says he and fellow prisoners find it hard at times to relate to others.

“We knew each other more than families – we spent our lives together,” he says. “From one word we understand each other, so it is difficult to cope with people outside.”

One such word is zifta – tar. In prison, they didn’t have an opportunity to walk on paved roads, and it’s something that still holds excitement for them now.

But even the clip-clop of shoes on asphalt, a sound of freedom, began to lose its ring for Asakreh this winter, as he became bored with walking the streets of Bethlehem. As the first prisoner from the area to be released by Israel in the past year, many people recognized him, but he didn’t know any of them. Editor's note: This sentence has been revised to correctly reflect Asakreh's status.

He was hoping to marry – and had the bank account to do so, unlike many Palestinian men in the area, who struggle to provide the house, furniture, and dowry that most women’s families expect. But as he met girl after girl, he became disillusioned.

“All the women and their families think I’m a rich man and I have a bucket of money,” he says. “I think it’s commercial more than love or real life. I couldn’t agree with this. I tried to find a woman who would support me.”

Now he and his fiancée are planning their future. He’s hoping for just two children, and is relatively optimistic about their future.

At the university in nearby Beit Jala where he and a few other prisoners are taking computer classes, Asakreh tries to tell the students – most of whom were born after he was convicted in 1991 for murdering French tourist Annie Ley in Bethlehem – that there is an alternative to violence.

While the students all show the prisoners respect, not all listen to his ideas.

Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the Israelis to change their mentality – though many Israelis say the same about the Palestinians.

“[PA President Mahmoud Abbas] is a good leader. There’s no other leader that can give peace like Abu Mazen,” he says, referring to the president by his nickname. Otherwise, he says, trotting out some of the Hebrew he learned in prison, chaos may ensue. “Because of that the Israeli side needs to understand very well that if Mahmoud Abbas goes, there will be a big balagan.” 

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