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A Time to Kill, And a Time to Heal

4 minute read
MATT REES | Ashkelon

Khaled Mardawi has blood on his hands. In 1992, in his West Bank home village near Nablus, the Hamas activist executed a man he suspected of collaborating with the Israelis. An Israeli court sentenced Mardawi to life in Block 8, the high-security wing of Shikma Prison, on the outskirts of the drab seaside town of Ashkelon on Israel’s central plain. These days, Mardawi, a trim 40-year-old with a close-cropped gray beard, says he rejects violence. “We can’t crush the Israelis and they can’t crush us,” he admits, sitting on a rough brown blanket on his metal bunk. “You can’t crush an entire people. We need to give peace talks a chance.” That means giving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enough time to secure the release of prisoners like Mardawi.

Palestinian militants agreed to Abbas’ request for a halt to attacks, mainly because they believe he’ll use a period of calm to push for the release of some of the 9,000 prisoners doing time in Israeli jails — even those like Mardawi, whom Israel classifies as having “blood on their hands,” meaning those who killed Israelis or took part in operations that ended in Israeli deaths. So far, Israel has freed only lower-level prisoners convicted of things like membership of a militant group or weapons possession. But Abbas, who formed a new government late last month, needs to keep the prisoners and their supporters in militant groups on his side if the current relative calm is ever to become a more permanent peace. “If Abbas leaves us in jail,” Mardawi says, “there’ll be no cease-fire anymore.”

Behind the 10-m walls of Shikma, bulky mastiffs drag guards across the gravel yard. In one cell in Block 8, 10 inmates sit back on their bunks in brown overalls, staring silently at a wall-mounted television, smoking aromatic cheroots and cheap Israeli cigarettes. The 8-m-by-11-m room is festooned with bath towels and tracksuits. Each man owns a transistor radio and earphones, and little else. The men reel off the dates of their incarcerations. All were jailed before the 1993 signing of the Oslo peace agreement and that, they argue, makes them prisoners of a war that ended by treaty, and they ought to have been freed long ago. “Our leaders signed an agreement and left their soldiers in jail,” says Uthman Musleh, 53, who was incarcerated 22 years ago for killing and wounding several Israelis. “If we have blood on our hands, so do the Israelis. But the war is over now.”

Abbas’ moves to end four years of violence have put Israel’s leaders in a forgiving mood, despite the recent Tel Aviv suicide bombing. But so far that doesn’t extend to the inmates of Block 8. “These are the hard cases,” says Colonel Ofer Lefler, an Israel Prison Service official. When Israel makes an occasional early release of prisoners involved in terrorism, 48% are later reconvicted of terror attacks, according to a senior Israeli security official. Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners last month, and Abbas persuaded Israel’s Defense Minister last week to prepare the release of another 400. But most of them were serving short sentences and none participated in terror attacks that killed Israelis. No one from Block 8 is on the list.

Israeli officials say it’s self-serving for convicts to talk peace when there’s the prospect of imminent release. But the long-term prisoners in Block 8 are clearly more thoughtful than their newer, younger cell mates. The eyes of the older men are tired and empty and desperate. It’s a look that comes from too much reflection, says Nimr Shaaban, 37, who was jailed 17 years ago for throwing Molotov cocktails in Jerusalem. A while back, Shaaban found himself sharing a cell with a would-be suicide bomber picked up by Israeli police before he could detonate his charges. “I told him that suicide bombs are a big, big mistake,” he says. “On the outside, they don’t take time to consider moral issues. In prison, you have all the time you want to think.”

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