Israel and the Palestinian Prisoners / Israeli Arabs Suffer Double Discrimination

A few months ago, on her 75th birthday, Leila Burgal received a special present: a picture of herself with her imprisoned son Mukhlas Burgal. According to Israel Prisons Service regulations, Palestinian security prisoners are not permitted leave from prison even if they, like Burgal, are citizens of Israel. Instead, they may be photographed with their parents.

Until several months ago, these photographs were permitted only when a prisoner's parents were 75 years or older. Yet many prisoners' parents get their final reward long before that age. One of the demands made by hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners was that the age of parents who may be photographed with their imprisoned offspring be reduced to 60. The demand was accepted after Leila Burgal turned 75.

To Burgal's great joy, she was granted a previous opportunity to be photographed with her son. About six years ago, the family appealed in court a Prisons Service decision that denied Mukhlas' younger brother the right to visit him in prison, despite the fact that Mukhlas' brother had no criminal record and had never been jailed himself. The mother and her imprisoned son met in court, where her son was handcuffed to another prisoner. The picture of the three of them was taken with Mukhlas' free hand around his mother's shoulder. These pictures are so very precious to her.

Mukhlas Burgal, a 44-year-old native of the city of Lod, was sentenced to life imprisonment 18 years ago. He threw a hand grenade into a bus transporting IDF soldiers; the grenade failed to explode, no one was hurt and no damage was done. He was also charged with obtaining a gun and ammunition for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). His partner, Mohammed Ziadeh, who signaled to him that the bus was approaching, is now 51 and a father of seven. He was also sentenced to life in prison. Burgal's sentence was later limited to 40 years. Ziadeh's sentence remains as it was.

"From the moment they were born, they knew discrimination and oppression," Leila Burgal says, describing her childrens' lives. Leila did everything in her power to save her children from discrimination in the state education system - she sent them to private school in Jaffa.

"My father wanted 12 children," Moanes, the youngest son, jokes, "but he made do with four when he realized how much it would cost after my mother insisted on private education in Jaffa. After 1967, when the border opened, our relatives from the West Bank came, refugees from Nablus, and they raised their eyebrows at the small number of children."

A sister was born later and killed in a car accident at age 3, and then came Moanes. "He studied computer engineering," his mother says proudly before adding sadly, "but he can't find work - there's always some condition demanding that a candidate for employment be an Israel Defense Forces veteran. He earns his living as an electrician."

"In Lod, you can pass from the the Third World to the First World in one minute," Moanes says. "On one side of this roadblock are puddles of sewage, unpaved roads, houses on the verge of collapse, drug deals conducted in the open - and then, just beyond it, there are well-groomed streets, gardens and playgrounds for the children."

His mother adds, "How can they not understand that this is what leads people like my son to do what they do?"

Discrimination continues inside the prison walls. Arab security prisoners are denied privileges granted to criminal or security prisoners of Jewish origin (telephone calls, leaves, time spent with the family in the visitors' room), even if they are citizens of Israel. "If I die, they won't let him out for my funeral," Leila predicts.

"Our dual allegiance, as citizens of the state of Israel and members of the Palestinian people, is part of our identity, just like our gender and our religion," Mukhlas explains in a letter he wrote, directed to the Israeli public on behalf of security prisoners who are citizens of Israel. "This is a status that we neither chose nor can reject. Our fate was to be born to a conflict between two identities. And this took a heavy and cruel toll on us, because our belonging to both poles of the conflict placed us neither here nor there - we were ignored for many years in every aspect pertaining to our continued imprisonment and the conditions of that imprisonment."

According to Mukhlas, on one hand, as citizens of the state, they were not included among "Oslo-freed prisoners." On the other hand, as Arabs convicted of security crimes, Israeli courts sentenced them to harsh jail terms several times more severe than that of Jewish citizens, even those convicted of similar or worse crimes of a "nationalist nature."

Only a few of the Arab prisoners serving life terms have time limits on their sentences and in any case, their terms are much longer than those of Jewish convicts who perpetrated similar crimes. They do not receive presidential pardons, and their requests to the "one-third" committee, which can reduce a sentence by one-third for good behavior, are rejected.

Mukhlas compares individual cases of Jewish and Palestinian security prisoners: Hafez Kondos, for example, threw a grenade at the home of the head of the Waqf Islamic trust in Jaffa, because the latter was planning to sell the local Muslim cemetery to a construction company. The grenade exploded but did no damage. Kondos was sentenced to 28 years in prison, and has served 21 years to date. The parole committee refused to release him after he served two-thirds of his term.

In contrast, a group of minors, called Kahane Youth, who murdered an elderly Arab man in 1992 and wounded seven others by throwing a grenade into a crowded market in Jerusalem, were sentenced to a relatively merciful eight to 15 year term. They were granted a presidential pardon after four years.

Walid Daka, of Baka al-Garbiyeh, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his membership in a terrorist cell that kidnapped and murdered a soldier. He insists that he had no knowledge of the kidnapping and murder before he entered the Prisons Service interrogation room. He has been imprisoned for 20 years, and his term is unlimited. But Alan Goodman, who was convicted of wounding Muslims attending prayer services in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment, was pardoned after 14 years in prison.

"Times are changing," Burgal wrote in a letter written with other prisoners. "Golda Meir denied the existence of the Palestinian people, Rabin hoped that Gaza would sink into the sea, and Sharon said that the fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv. We have also changed: We honestly and fully desire and hope for peace, and even try to contribute to the end of the bloody conflict between our people and our state."