Gaza After the Pullout / Third in Series - No Way Out: Released From Israeli Jails, 42 Former Prisoners Find Themselves

They are no different from all the other Gazans who expected that the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the Gaza Strip would enable them to pack suitcases and go abroad via Egypt. Like many others, they want to see relatives they have not seen for years. They feel like they are in prison.

They are 42 released prisoners, most of them born in Arab countries, in particular Syria and Lebanon. They joined the various organizations within the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s and `80s and were captured while trying to infiltrate Israel via land or sea to carry out attacks. As part of the Oslo Accords, those who had not been convicted of murder were released. One of Israel's conditions for their release was that they must live in Gaza. Israel also gave them Palestinian residency permits for Gaza, including the non-Palestinians among them such as Mussa Nur from Darfur, Sudan and Mohammed Afif, from Syria.

Like thousands of others in recent years, they discovered that for some unknown reasons the Israeli authorities prohibited them from leaving Gaza.

Upon their release they were told they would not be allowed to leave Gaza for three years, so they all waited impatiently for 2002. Nur was the only one who managed to leave Gaza, for a visit to his family in Darfur. That was in June 2002 as a personal favor by the Shin Bet for a senior Palestinian security official, when, according to one of the 42, relations "were excellent." But since then, none has been allowed to leave. They get to the Israeli-controlled crossing at Rafah and are simply told that they are not allowed to go.

"If I'm suspected of something, let them arrest me," Nur said. He claims to have tried to leave at least 10 times. No arrests, but no exit either. A number of them hired lawyers to write to the Israeli authorities, asked the human rights organizations for help, tried to use any influence they had. These methods worked for some people, but not for any of the 42.

Some of them have not seen their families since the late 1970s, since they joined the PLO. Afif has not seen his since 1980. His father died after he was released, and he was unable to be with his family during the mourning period. Fahd Al-Kurdi, from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus (his family was expelled from Safed in 1948), was captured in 1988 on the Lebanon border. In 1998 his mother somehow managed to enter Israel, and she visited him in the Ashkelon prison. Once, in the visitors' room, separated by a screen. The wardens did not let them kiss or embrace. Usama Al-Harb, a Beirut native who always introduced himself as being from Shfa'amr (Shfaram), was even luckier: his mother also managed to visit him, at Nafha Prison. At first they were separated by the screen, and when his mother began to cry, Harb pleaded with her to stop. The warden heard him and said, "She's your mother, isn't she? Are you telling her she can't cry after she didn't see you for so many years?". He let them into a room where they could embrace.

All of the 42 men live in the same neighborhood. [The late PA chairman Yasser] Arafat, they say, is the one who personally made sure that each one received a furnished apartment, a grant and a job. Most worked in the PA security apparatus, a few in one of the civilian ministries. Veterans of Israeli shelling (of Lebanon) and battles, they say the hardest time for them was the past five years.

"It's different when you're a father," Adnan Yusuf explained. His family is from Haifa, he was born in Iraq. "And it's different when you are older and you know that the Kalashnikovs can't win against a tank or helicopter," Yusuf said.

These released prisoners wonder whether they will be allowed to leave or whether they will be forced to continue to live in a giant prison.

Crossings from Gaza shut

Israel closed the Rafah border crossing on September 7, expecting that the Palestinian Authority would cooperate with the operation of the Israeli border terminal under construction at Kerem Shalom, as an interim step until both sides (with the mediation of Quartetcoordinator James Wolfensohn come to an agreement regarding Gaza Strip crossings. The Palestinians, however, fear that the temporary arrangement will become a permanent one. They oppose a situation in which Palestinians pass from the Gaza Strip into Egypt via an Israeli border terminal - where Israel has the authority to interrogate, prohibit travel and arrest any Palestinian.

As a compromise, the Palestinians propose that all travelers leave through the Rafah terminal, as a Gaza-Egypt border crossing, but that only people with Palestinian identity cards enter through it. Foreign nationals would use the Israeli crossing, Kerem Shalom. Exports from Gaza would go through the Rafah terminal, and imports would go through Kerem Shalom for a period of one year to preserve Israel's "customs envelope." The condition for this is the presence of a third party. The Palestinians agree to the presence of a third party at Rafah for security purposes.

According to Palestinian sources, Wolfensohn, currently attempting to renew talks on the border crossings, does not understand the Palestinian opposition to Kerem Shalom, and that Europeans are urging them "to be realistic."

Meanwhile, Gaza is tightly closed: The Rafah crossing is closed completely, except the one day it operated with Egyptian-Palestinian cooperation and Israel's silent acquiescence. Karni, the cargo crossing, has been closed for a week. Even cabinet ministers and other VIPs have been unable to go through the Erez crossing this past week. Only a few sick people among hundreds requiring treatment in Israel were permitted to leave Gaza via Erez.