DEHEISHEH, West Bank - Only her pale eyebrows, striking amid the dark skin of the other women in this refugee camp, signaled the unusual origin of Irina Polishchuk-Sarahne. On Tuesday, paralyzed by excitement and exhausted from the countless receptions, the Ukrainian terrorist returned to her home at the upper part of the camp.
Deheisheh is an especially wretched place, whose residents tried to lend a festive appearance in Irina's honor. Since 1967, 61 residents of this camp just south of Bethlehem have been killed in clashes with the Israel Defense Forces. Eighteen suicide bombers set out from here. Thirty-five of its people are serving one life sentence (or more ) in an Israeli prison. In fact, it is doubtful there is a man in the camp who has not passed through an Israeli prison.
Four prisoners from Deheisheh were freed in the Shalit deal, but only Polischuk-Sarahne was permitted to return to her home. The residents accompanied her in a parade. Plastic chairs were arranged in her yard, and volunteers handed out individually wrapped chocolates. On one side of her sat her Ukrainian mother, who had arrived the day before via Ben-Gurion International Airport and was swathed in a scarf symbolizing the resistance, and on the other side sat her mother-in-law, a refugee of the war of '48.
On the list of the 477 prisoners who were freed this week, Polishchuk is unique in both her name and origin. Her life story could furnish the plot for an Egyptian movie. She was born in 1977 in a small village in Ukraine. Her childhood was one of meager means and deprivation. In the mid-1990s, she arrived in Israel and began working as a prostitute in a Tel Aviv brothel.
One of her regular clients was Ibrahim Sarahne. He belonged to a refugee family, from the villages in the Beit Shemesh region, whose members had fled initially to Jerusalem. In 1967 they were living in that city and were among those granted a blue identity card when Israel conquered the eastern part. Later the family relocated to Deheisheh, where the rest of their fellow villagers had settled. Sarahne made a living as a car thief. He married a Palestinian and had five children with her, which did not prevent him from patronizing whorehouses in Tel Aviv.
In 1999, after a number of transactions between them, the two fell in love. Polischuk saved up enough money to go back to her homeland. Sarahne followed her there, and persuaded her to come live with him in Israel. At first they lived in central Israel. After the second intifada broke out, the couple moved into his parents' house in Deheisheh, where they had a child together. At the refugee camp, Irena immediately stood out as an outsider. She drew attention by walking around in public with her hair showing. Evil tongues started to wag.
After the outbreak of the second intifada, Sarahne's blue identity card, knowledge of Jerusalem and wild driving skills became sought-after commodities in the camp's terror infrastructure. A relative, Mahmoud Sarahne, recruited Ibrahim to a cell that was led by Muhammad Mughrabi. On March 29, 2002, Ibrahim ferried a female suicide bomber, Ayat al-Akhras, from the camp to a supermarket in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel. The explosion killed Haim Smadar and Racheli Levy.
Two days later, Sarahne led another suicide bomber, Ghami Shahwani, to Jerusalem. This time he took additional precautions. He sat in a forward car, bringing along his wife and baby as camouflage. The bomber was in the rear car, driven by Ibrahim's brother, Khalil. The cars were stopped at a surprise checkpoint in Jerusalem. Shahwani detonated the bomb, killing Border Policeman Tomer Mordechai. Ibrahim and Irena fled the scene.
That May, after Operation Defensive Shield, the Tanzim terror group, working out of a home in Deheisheh, planned another deadly terror attack. This time two suicide bombers were chosen for the task. One of them, Issa Badir, was supposed to blow himself up, and was to be followed by a woman named Arin Ahmed, who was to detonate herself when rescue crews arrived in response to the first blast. To conceal their identities, Ahmed dressed as a pregnant woman and Badir dyed his hair red. Sarahne took the pair to Rishon Letzion, so that the mission would appear to have originated in Gaza. When they reached the city's pedestrian mall, Ahmed changed her mind. Polischuk called her a coward and told her she would not get another chance like this. "Do you see how many Jews there are? You dislike them, after all, and don't you know what the Koran says about Paradise," she declared.
In the end, Badir blew himself up alone, killing Elmar Dezhabrielov and Gary Tauzniaski. The following day, Ibrahim and Irena were arrested at the entrance to the Bat Yam shopping mall, en route to do some shopping.
Under interrogation, Polischuk at first identified herself as Marina Pinsky. She had in fact stolen the identity card of the latter, who was married to Ibrahim's cousin. This led the Shin Bet security services to report initially that a Jewish woman had played a role in the terror attacks. The error was cleared up only after a week. Polischuk claimed she did not understand Arabic and also that she was unaware of the purpose of the trips. The military court accepted her version of events, and sentenced her to three and a half years in prison. The military court of appeals overturned the ruling, accepting instead the argument that she had knowingly helped to carry out the terror attacks, and sentenced her to 20 years in prison. Her husband was given several life sentences.
In prison Polischuk, who had earlier converted to Islam, became devout in her behavior, and began wearing a hijab and jilbab. Two years ago, the authorities offered her a chance to return to Ukraine and take her daughter with her. She declined, saying she would not remove her daughter from her husband's family. After her release this week, Irina refused to speak with the Israeli media, claiming that she might say something that wouldn't be to Shin Bet's liking and would be sent back to prison. In the meantime, she will continue being the lone Ukrainian woman in the refugee camp.
Close to the Polischuk-Sarahne residence, at the home of the Mughrabi family, a welcome tent was opened to mark the release of their son, Ali. Posters with the likeness of the freed prisoner lined the road leading to the house. A tray with sweets was placed on the table. In the center of the tent sat the patriarch, Yusuf, 61. His leg was injured in the Six-Day War. After that he went to Libya and Lebanon, where he was a political activist in Fatah. Following the Oslo Accords, he returned to the camp from abroad.
Yusuf had four children. Mohammed was killed in 2000 in a clash with an IDF force near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Ahmed, the head of the Tanzim infrastructure in Deheisheh, is serving 14 life sentences for planning and orchestrating the suicide attacks in which Sarahne was involved, as well as the bombing of the Moment cafe in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2002. Israel considers him one of its most dangerous prisoners, and he is kept in isolation. Ali, 16 at the time of the attacks, served as his elder brother's right-hand man. He transferred funds, stole cars for attacks and photographed the suicide bombers. He was given two life sentences. He is the one being freed as part of the current deal, and will be deported to Gaza. The youngest son, Amir, was released from prison a year ago after serving five years. The IDF destroyed the family home three times.
Since Tuesday morning, Yusuf has been sitting in the tent and receiving guests. His mobile phone rings incessantly with calls from well-wishers. The son has not called yet. While we were there, the parents of suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras paid a visit. The incident did not prevent the parents of the dispatcher and the bomber from remaining friends.
Yusuf Mughrabi has not seen Ali in nine years. He was not permitted to visit him in prison. According to Yusuf, the Egyptians are supposed to keep the released prisoners from going to Egypt, where they could theoretically have met. The family hired a lawyer and intends to petition the High Court of Justice against Ali's expulsion to Gaza. Yusuf claims his son is mistakenly registered in the Population Registry as a Gaza resident, whereas he is a resident of Deheisheh.
"The most important thing is that he is healthy and in good condition. We would be delighted if he were here. If he goes back to resistance, I will put handcuffs on him myself," the father says. "Ali has abandoned that path. He wants to study, to get married. He was only 16 at the time of the events. He and his brothers would evacuate children wounded by the IDF to the hospital. That is how they began to take part in the intifada. After they killed Mohammed, Ali was angry. The hatred is not against the Jews, but rather against the Zionists, who try to take everything."
According to Yusuf, Israel made a mistake with this deal. "If you want to weaken terror, you have to free prisoners as a gesture to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. You don't give him settlements, water, crossings. At least let people go home. There are tens of thousands of terrorists. The thousand in prison aren't needed. Free them for Abu Mazen. Abbas wants two states. You refuse because of interests here and there. In the end there will be a bi-national state. We support peace, my right and your right to live."
Deheisheh was split into two camps this week: the few whose sons were released, and the many whose sons weren't. Aside from Ali Mughrabi and Irina Sarahne, welcomes were also prepared in the home of Yahya Daamsa, a Tanzim operative who was part of the infrastructure for those same terror attacks, and who was given two life sentences, and in the home of Darar al-Harub, who ferried a would-be suicide bomber who was thwarted at the entrance to the Caffit cafe in Jerusalem, in 2002. Daamsa received a life sentence. They too were expelled to Gaza.
The families of those who were left outside the deal sat at the entrance to the offices of the International Red Cross, a two-minute drive from the refugee camp. A big poster was put up with photos of all the prisoners from Deheisheh who are in Israeli prison. The women sat in a long row, holding pictures of their children.
As the time nears for the decision on the identities of the remaining 550 prisoners to be freed by Israel, tensions are mounting. The mother of Ali Abu Halail, who is serving 21 life sentences for masterminding the 2004 bombings of buses Nos. 19 and 14 in Jerusalem, is requesting her son's release because, "aside from him I have only eight girls." She knows, however, that there's no chance that he will be freed.
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