'My Brother Has Been Incarcerated Longer Than Mandela and Pollard'

Haaretz visits the families of some of the Palestinian prisoners due to be released in a week as part of the peace talks.

The trees have been trimmed, the asphalt on the access road packed down. Two hundred illuminated balloons that will be released skyward have been ordered, new flower boxes adorn the courtyard, moist baklava pastries are on the way. Dozens of candles and hundreds of T-shirts emblazoned with a photograph of the prisoner Walid Daka have also been ordered. The local children will paint a large inscription – “Huriya” (freedom in Arabic) – on the mound of earth next to his house, and encircle the word with olive branches. The Daka family is getting ready, fantasizing about the great day. But they also know all this might turn out to be mere wishful thinking, a spring night’s dream.

The families of the others of the 14 Palestinian-Israeli prisoners who are due to be released on March 28 (within the framework of the current U.S.-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians) are far more restrained and cautious. Having been disappointed in the past, they are not allowing expectations to soar. No baklavas or flower boxes for them.

Their loved ones have been incarcerated for periods of 25 to 32 years, without a single day of furlough, without one phone call. And after all the previous prisoner deals passed over them, they know that this time, too, their lot might be bitter disappointment, as it was after the Gilad Shalit deal in October 2011.

Israel wields a double standard with regard to those of its sons who were involved in murderous terrorism before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. It refuses to release them, in the context of agreements made as a result of negotiations, because they are citizens of the country, but at the same time does not grant them the same rights as Jewish security prisoners. Some of them have served more than two-thirds of their terms, but have no chance of early release. Their prospect lies with this fourth batch of prisoners, to which Israel committed itself.

A few Israeli prisoners were released in the Shalit deal. Sami Younis, for example, gained his freedom, though his two nephews, Maher and Karim, who were convicted of having been part of the same squad that murdered a soldier, are now serving their 32nd year behind bars, putting them high on the list of the country’s veteran prisoners.

In 2001, at Shata Prison, I met with Daka and with Karim Younis – who were among the leaders of the security prisoners – for a conversation, most of which was not permitted to be published at the time. I came away highly impressed by the two and by the transformation that had occurred in their thinking. Ten years later, when Shalit was released and they were, in the end, not included in the deal, I revisited their homes. I also visited Daka’s family six months ago, and this week I returned again to Daka’s home and to the family of the prisoner Rushdi Abu-Moch, just before the cyclical “blood on their hands” ritual gets underway here.

The aged mothers of the three are still alive; their fathers have died. This is probably the last chance the three mothers will have to embrace their sons after decades of not being permitted to do so.

Farida Daka is sitting in the courtyard of her home in Baka al-Garbiyeh, which her son Assad is now sprucing up for the possible liberation celebrations. Farida stares blankly at the activity around her. The 84-year-old widow has not been fully lucid for some years. When her husband died, Walid was not permitted to attend his father’s funeral, not even to speak to him on the phone as he lay dying. Now, as Assad unfurls a huge poster of Walid that he has prepared, her eyes fill with tears and she extends a soft hand to caress her son’s image.

Only the distant past is as clear as a bell. She remembers the names of the two cows – Joha and Shakeira – that her father bought her in “Manshiyya time” – by which she means the village of her birth, on whose lands Kibbutz Givat Haim was built. She also remembers her close Jewish friend Bruriya, who worked with her in the Tnuvot produce-packing facility.

In his fancy café, located on the city’s main street, Assad promises coffee and pastries on the house next weekend, to mark the prisoners’ release. His coffee shop is a political institution, offering espresso semifreddo along with photos of the 14 prisoners and a selection of quotations from Walid on the walls, Channel 10 broadcasting in Hebrew, and a pre-Nakba map of Palestine also on view.

This week, Assad visited his brother in Hadarim Prison, near Netanya, and found him calm and hopeful. Walid’s wife, Sana Salameh-Daka, a lawyer and human-rights activist from Tira – the couple wed in prison in 1999, but the two have never been allowed to consummate their marriage – also took part in the visit.

Sana is undergoing an acutely tense time. Next week will see the start of the 29th year of Walid’s incarceration: He was convicted of being part of the Popular Front squad that kidnapped and murdered the soldier Moshe Tamam.

Walid’s apartment, on the third floor of the family compound, has been empty all these years, awaiting his return. Assad asked him this week – over the phone that connects inmates and visitors across a glass partition – whether he should start furnishing the apartment, but Walid told him that he intends to spend the first three months of his freedom in his mother’s apartment. “Even if a palace awaits me, I will live with mother for three months,” he said.

‘To be reborn’

An olive sapling is also waiting for him at home: he will plant it on his father’s grave. He wants to name the son or daughter that he will father in the future Mailad, meaning “to be reborn.” Nahala, Walid’s sister, dreamed this week that she received a phone call informing her that Walid was out.

In another house in Baka al-Garbiyeh, another mother sits and waits for her son. Samiya Abu-Moch, 81, who is under nursing care, is waiting for Rushdi. Fearful anxiety rules in this house – the fear of being disappointed and the fear that Rushdi will not be able to cope with another disappointment. Consequently, no special preparations are being made here. Pots are bubbling on the gas stove, but they have nothing to do with the anticipated release.

Ala, a high-school student of 17, has met his uncle Rushdi only once, as a child of three. Since 2000, security prisoners have been allowed visits by first-degree relatives only. Rushdi’s family say he is in poor health, suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and diminishing eyesight. They are very much afraid that another disappointment will be more than he can handle.

A few years ago, when his brother was killed in an accident, Rushdi was allowed to leave prison, handcuffed, to pay a 40-minute condolence call. That was his only leave in 28 years, and he said afterward it would have been better if it hadn’t taken place. Another prisoner on the list, Ibrahim Abu-Moch, a relative, has no close family other than a sister who lives in Jerusalem, so Rushdi’s family has taken it on themselves to look after him, too, if and when he is released.

In the elegant family compound in the village of Ara, the two brothers Nadim and Tamim Younis also wait. The last time we visited, their father, Younis Younis, was still sitting in his wheelchair, staring vacantly. He died a year ago, exactly on the day marking the 30th anniversary of the incarceration of his son Karim.

Karim was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral or visit the mourners’ tent. The state claimed that the family home lies in the heart of a hostile village, so Karim’s condolence furlough would pose a security risk. “Hostile village”? Nonsense. “Heart of the village”? Arrant nonsense. The brothers’ homes lie just a few meters from the busy Wadi Ara highway.

Karim and his cousins Maher and Sami were convicted of murdering the soldier Avi Bromberg, in 1980. Last week, Tamim visited his brother and was, he says, told by a guard, “Next Monday is the last visit.” But here, too, the brothers are being cautious, and the aged mother is waiting for her son inside the house. Her sons say that whenever she is given something, she sets it aside and says, “We will save that for Karim.”

“Karim is now entering his 32nd year – more than [Nelson] Mandela, more than [Jonathan] Pollard,” says Tamim, who is a lawyer. “People say about Pollard that it’s inhuman, but what about Karim, who has been inside longer than Pollard – is that human? You are ditching Israeli democracy in order to take revenge on people like Karim and Maher. Check, Netanyahu, whether Karim and Maher are dangerous. Devote two minutes to the subject. We are not asking for mercy or any favors from Israel. All we are asking is justice for Karim and Maher.”

This is what Karim told me, in our one meeting, in the office of the warden of Shata Prison, with a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the wall, 13 years ago: “What will a prisoner think if seven years of peace talks did not bring about release, but one kidnapping by Hezbollah did get prisoners released? That the only thing Israel understands is force.”

Alex Levac