300 Protest Closing of Haifa Halfway House for Former Prisoners

As of Monday, no funding sources that would keep Beit Hahesed open had been found.

People listening to stories of people the center has helped over the years.
Rami Shllush

Some 300 people, including ex-convicts, members of the clergy and elected officials gathered on Monday night outside Israel’s only halfway house for Arab paroled prisoners, located in Haifa, to protest the center’s planned closure and to relate and to listen to the stories of people it has helped over the years.

The state’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority recently informed Beit Hahesed, the name of the halfway house and the charity that operates it, that it will be withdrawing funding from January 1, 2016, necessitating its closure.

Dozens of people who had served long prison sentences for offenses involving drugs, weapons and violence mingled with clergymen, public officials, Knesset members and ordinary citizens. They were all there to protest the impending closure of the halfway house and rehabilitation center for former convicts from Israel’s Arab community.

In various corners of the plaza, small groups of people gathered to listen to the painful personal stories told by ex-convicts. With tears in their eyes they told of their rehabilitation process, of renewed ties with their families, of the new world that the center had opened to them.

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right: empire 2. left: as. Bloomberg, AP

Haaretz reported on emerging concerns over the possible closure of Beit Hahesed, after the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority of the Israel Prison Service told its operators of its decision to end its relationship with the nongovernmental organization due to budget constraints.

The directors and counselors at the center fear that the absence of a rehabilitation program for Arabs in Israel who have been released from prison will increase recidivism.

Thaer Suleiman, 39, a Jerusalem man who has three children, was imprisoned for a total of more than 15 years. His youngest child, a son, is 11, and Suleiman says they met for the first time just five months ago.

“I’ve never addressed an audience before and no one has ever listened to me,” Suleiman relates, tears in his eyes.

“If there is one good thing about this situation, it’s that we’re getting exposure and speaking to an audience that usually shuns us and sees us as dangerous,” he said.

“Suddenly you realize that we’re dealing with human beings,” adds Yasmin Mansour, a young lawyer. “We hear their stories and realize how important it is to help people that are rarely mentioned in Arab society,” she says.

The home’s director and owner, Jamal Shehada, established Beit Hahesed together with his parents more than three decades ago.

“This exposure and the attempt to harness all the relevant social agencies — Jewish and Arab — to this struggle gives us an opportunity to try and save the hostel,” he says. “The clock is ticking. As of early January we will no longer be responsible for the 13 residents of the center, and the way will be blocked for everyone” who is on the waiting list, Shehada says.

As of Monday, no alternative funding sources that would keep Beit Hahesed open had been found. Abeer Baker, a lawyer who represents the center, says the NGO may take the case to the High Court of Justice, but for now it is focusing on a public campaign.

Since Beit Hahesed began operating the halfway house, in 1983, it has been the temporary home of parolees, Jews as well as Arabs. Since 2011, it has been the only such facility for Arab citizens of Israel, Shehada explains.

Between 2012 and 2015 the center has taken in 81 parolees, 70 percent of whom successfully completed its intensive treatment program. The duration of the program is 21 months, including nine at the center. Most of the remaining 13 residents are enrolled in the program, and a number have expressed anxiety about being discharged into the general community before they are ready.