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Monday, December 19, 2011

Palestinians prisoners are out of jail, but not yet free

Dec 20, 2011 
A Palestinian prisoner is greeted by a relative after his release at the Rafah border crossing on Sunday. Eyad Baba / AP Photo

RAMALLAH // Celebrations marking the release of 550 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails stretched into the early hours of yesterday morning, but life outside prison will not necessarily mean freedom from the long arm of Israeli authorities.

Just ask Fakhri Barghouti.

Mr Barghouti walked out of jail in October, part of the first phase of the Egypt-brokered swap of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for a captured Israeli soldier held by the Islamist group Hamas for five years.
A cousin of the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, he discovered that liberation from an Israeli jail did not necessarily mean freedom from Israeli harassment - a cautionary tale for those prisoners released late on Sunday in the second and final phase of the exchange.

"Shortly after I was released, soldiers raided my house at 2am and gave me orders to come to the Ofer military prison the following day," Mr Barghouti recalled from his home in Kober, a village near Ramallah. "It was all very threatening and they conducted a number of humiliating searches during the interrogation. The army wanted to send me the message that they are still in control. "

Mr Barghouti, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 for killing an Israeli soldier with a knife near the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, said that many of his fellow prisoners who were released in the first phase of the swap have been subjected to similar searches and interrogations.

In one instance, Mr Barghouti said, Israeli soldiers raided the house of a recently freed prisoner and forced his family to stay outside for hours in the middle of the night, only to take him away for interrogation at Ofer.

Despite criticism from Palestinian officials involved in the exchange, Israel attached strict terms to the release of many of the prisoners. According to the Issa Qaraqe, the minister of prisoner affairs for the Palestinian Authority, most of those released in October are required to report weekly or monthly to Israeli authorities - an Israeli tool, Mr Qaraqe said, to track the movements of their former captives.

"It is like they were never really let out of jail," said Kadoura Fares, the president of the Palestinian Prisoners Association in Ramallah. "I warned Hamas not to sign on to these conditions, which deprive prisoners their dignity to live in quiet freedom. But they did it anyway."

Families of recently released prisoners have also paid a price. Israel has reportedly barred the relatives of prisoners from visiting them in Jordan, where they were deported after the release. Israeli authorities said the families were denied exit permits for unspecified "security reasons".

A spokesman for the Israeli military refused to comment on the rules for freed Palestinian prisoners, saying "the information is spread across a number of departments including the ministry of defence".

The release conditions have become a source of tension between the Fatah and Hamas. In the run-up to the prisoner swap, Hamas officials announced that they would not accept an agreement with Israel that included strict conditions on freed prisoners and the deportation of former prisoners.

In the end, however, they agreed to a deal stipulating that more than 200 prisoners would not be able to return home to the West Bank upon their release.

Eighteen prisoners from East Jerusalem and the West Bank were deported to the Gaza Strip for a period of three years, according to the Palestinian prisoner-rights organisation Addameer. Another 146 prisoners were transferred to Gaza for an indefinite period, and 41 were exiled to Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

"Hamas is claiming that conditions on recently freed prisoners and deportations were not part of the agreement. But in fact they were part of the officially signed document. Now they are trying to deny responsibility for these conditions," Mr Qaraqe said.

Fakhri Barghouti is happy to be back with his people but has a hard time reconciling life under occupation and the conditions placed on his movement.

"I left prison but the occupation is still here. I have more freedom than in prison, but it's still the same occupation," he said. "It's just that I have more freedom of movement."

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