Barghouti's Children Aren't in a Hurry

Who are the Palestinian prisoners, whose release Israel is now contemplating?

Na'il Barghouti wanted to study music; Fakhri Barghouti, his cousin, was a shepherd. In 1978, Na'il had just finished his high school matriculation exams; Fakhri, 23, was already married with a baby. They were living in the village of their birth, Kobar, north of Ramallah. They joined a Fatah military cell led by Na'il's oldest brother, Omar Barghouti. In 1978, some 20 members of the cell were arrested on suspicion of killing an Israel Defense Forces officer in their region, near the settlement of Halamish. "We weren't the ones who went to the army, the army came to us, and not as a guest," said Omar Barghouti in his home this week, explaining the logic behind the decision to organize a military cell.

They were all convicted, and the military tribunal sentenced three of them to life imprisonment. Those three were brothers Na'il and Omar and their cousin, Fakhri. Omar was released in a prisoner swap in 1985. At the last minute Israel retracted its agreement to free all those sentenced to life and submitted a list of 36 prisoners whom it refused to release; renewed negotiations led to the release of half of them. Omar was one of those freed, but Na'il and Fakhri stayed behind, jailed in Shikma Prison in Ashkelon. Today they are among the most veteran Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Omar knows exactly how long they have been locked up: Na'il, he said, has been in jail for "29 years less four months and Fakhri, 28 and a half years."

Omar has not been entirely free since 1985 - he continues to be interrogated, arrested, tried and released every few years - he is still pained by knowing that the lives of his brother and cousin have been frozen in time. "I feel small compared to them," he said in response to a question on the memory of the arbitrary separation from Na'il and Fakhri. "I still feel like they cut off my two wings."

The Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization leaders are also "small" according to Omar, for not bringing about the release of all their war prisoners with the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement on May 4, 1994. He accused Palestinian Authority officials of abandoning the 400 Palestinian prisoners who had been sentenced for acts committed before that date. Of those, 78 were serving life sentences.

When he was arrested, Na'il was already known as Abu Lahab (Father of the Flame). That was how he was known by thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in the jails he was in, who lived with him or near him and were subsequently released. But that wasn't his nickname for long. Abu Lahab was the heretical uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, and Mohammed wished for him to burn in the fire of hell. In 1993, Na'il became religious and now Omar calls him Abu Nur (Father of the Light) because he has seen the light.

Fakhri is known as Abu Shadi, the name of his oldest son. A few months after he was imprisoned, his wife gave birth to another son, Hadi. In 2004, for the first time in 26 years, the father and his two sons were able to live together - in cell No. 21 of Ashkelon Prison, when both boys were arrested at the end of 2003. Shadi was sentenced to 27 years in jail. The family says the offense that sent him to prison was letting a relative, Jassar Barghouti, use his car. Jassar is a member of a Hamas cell that killed three soldiers in Ein Yabrud on October 19, 2003, and the gun that killed the soldiers was found in the car. Omar said Shadi is a Fatah, not a Hamas member, and that Shadi had no idea what Jassar was doing. Hadi was sentenced to four years in jail for routine intifada activities; the family doesn't even bother to remember exactly what led to his arrest.

In response to Fakhri's request, the Israel Prisons Service transferred his sons from Hadarim Prison to Ashkelon Prison. On the day of their arrival, the prisoners crowded into the cells near the small window in the iron door, waiting for the corridor gate to open. Some held mirrors to extend the range of visibility. Fakhri paced back and forth in his cell impatiently. Every few minutes, someone asked if they had come yet.

When the gate opened and the warden shouted "Abu Shadi," silence swept through the entire prison wing. A warden opened the door of cell 21 so Fakhri could come out to greet his sons. "Like in a movie, they watched them approaching each other, like in slow motion," said Omar. "We all held our breaths, but we didn't hide the tears. They looked at him, short and bearded, walking toward his two sons, who were taller than him."

Later, they slept alongside each other for a few nights. They put mattresses on the floor and Fakhri slept in the middle, flanked by his two sons. "When they were babies and their father was in prison, they slept like that with their mother, next to her," said Omar. "Under his bed he had food that he bought in the canteen, and he would feed them like a bird feeding its chicks."

Fakhri's parents died in the last few years. Omar was also in prison when his own parents died, one year apart: his father in October 2004 and his mother in October 2005. For a long time, Omar and Na'il's mother had been unable to visit her sons at the beginning of the intifada, at first because the army wouldn't let West Bank residents make prison visits and later because the computer system of the Civil Administration and Shin Bet security service insisted that she was not related to Na'il.

A short time before Omar and Na'il's mother died, she was brought to the prison in an ambulance. Her sons were allowed to be in the same room as her, embrace her and be photographed together. Their final meeting lasted 35 minutes. "We told her, 'We'll see you in paradise,'" recalled Omar. One picture remains as a memento of the last meeting; in it, the mother is on a stretcher and Omar and Na'il are beside her, holding her hands. Na'il is kissing her hand.

Despite their great disappointment in their movement and the feeling that it has abandoned them, Na'il and Fakhri have remained Fatah members, although they belong to two separate factions, according to Omar. The Shin Bet says Omar crossed over to Hamas after 1992 and that he was on the "command level" of militant activity in the Ramallah area during the second intifada. Hearing this, Omar chuckled and denied the allegation. "I wasn't on the command level; after all, they wouldn't let me out of jail," he said. "I told the Shin Bet: 'Is it forbidden to grow a beard? Is religion the property of Hamas and the fact that I pray makes me a Hamas man?'"

Omar's two oldest sons have also seen the inside of a jail cell: One was sentenced to 18 months for activities at a university, and the second was sentenced to six months. Omar claims Israel was trying to pressure him by arresting his son. In the late 1970s, Omar was in the same prison as Marwan Barghouti, who is a distant relative from the same village. Omar said he was the one who convinced Marwan to leave the communist faction of which he was a member and join Fatah instead. Omar and his family are enraged by posters that sometimes appear in Ramallah to call for "Freedom for [Fatah leader] Marwan Barghouti and All the Prisoners" or "Freedom for [Hamas leader] Hassan Yousef and All the Prisoners." What is this "and," Omar wanted to know, adding that his mother used to participate in all the protests for the release of Palestinian prisoners before she became sick. At a protest in front of the Red Cross office in Jerusalem, police arrested Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini and a veteran activist from Jerusalem who had previously served 14 years in prison for activity against the occupation. The media reported that Husseini and a few others were arrested. For Omar's mother, that "and" embodied the contempt of the elite for the simple, regular folks who sacrificed their lives for the struggle for independence.

"Every time Yitzhak Rabin traveled abroad, he took [missing navigator] Ron Arad's wife with him," Omar said, continuing his mother's complaint. "But with us, when [Palestinian negotiator] Saeb Erekat and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] talk to the Israeli leadership about the prisoners, it's as though they become embarrassed. And why should they care? After all, they don't have sons in jail."