Released From Israeli Prison, Traumatized by Newfound Freedom

Two men from a village near Ramallah came home last week after nearly three decades in Israeli prisons for murdering a soldier. They say they believe in peace – but are not sure Israelis want to listen.

They come from the same village. Now they live in two neighboring houses that they’d never seen before, opposite one another on a road lined with cypress trees, decorated with their pictures. Their families built the houses for them, in place of the ones that the Israel Defense Forces demolished 28 years ago, after the two men were arrested.

Twenty-eight years ago, they were involved with the squad belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that shot to death reservist Corp. Aharon Avidar. Avidar was 29 when he died. Since then, they were imprisoned in an Israeli facility for that murder. Last week, Mohammed Nasser and Rafaa Karage were released as part of Israel’s agreement to grant early release to 26 Palestinian security prisoners.

Nasser is 58 years old, Karage is 50. They are relatives, both from the village of Safa, west of Ramallah. They are the faces behind the “despicable murderers” who have “blood on their hands.” They killed an Israeli reservist in Ramallah, paid for it with the best years of their lives, and now want to open a new chapter in their lives, as well as in their outlooks and in the relations between the two peoples. To them, the dead soldier Avidar was a victim of the occupation, just as they have been.

Nasser greets us with sweets under the grapevine-covered bower of his new home. Dressed in a Puma training outfit, he now goes outside to the street every day at 6:30 A.M., just as he went out to the prison courtyard every morning over the past 28 years. He calls his grandchildren, whom he had never met, by the names of their parents − his own children − and now he wants to raise them, in place of the three children from whom he parted when they were small, 28 years ago.

Nasser speaks good Hebrew, which he learned in prison, and because he is still very excited about his release, his words are occasionally interrupted by comments like, “I’m a little excited.”

For his part, his friend across the road, Rafaa Karage, speaks of “the trauma of freedom”: “I can’t believe it. I’m in a trauma of freedom. I still can’t see myself as free. After they steal your freedom for almost 30 years, in such a small and crowded place, you’re in trauma when you’re released.”

Nasser’s wife’s eyes are glowing, and his grandchildren are clinging to him. He insists on speaking, repeatedly and in poetic and enthusiastic terms, about the need for peace, emphasizing that already years ago, in prison, he switched from the ranks of the Popular Front to Fatah − from believing in a single state to advocating a two-state for two peoples solution.

Nasser: “We do not oppose the Jews, we oppose the occupation. We don’t like to kill or to shed blood. The occupation is the reason why we are opposed, and we hope to open a new leaf now, to stand hand in hand for the existence of a state of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.”

He looks good for someone who has spent half his life in prison. Karage is thin and muscular. Members of a squad of six, they were arrested in 1985 shortly after killing the soldier. They are the last two of the group to have been in prison.

Was it a mistake to launch an armed struggle? Nasser: “Every period has its own methods. But we believe in peace.” Both insist on not mentioning the name of their victim.

Nasser’s son is in Brazil, and he hasn’t seen or spoken to him in about 10 years. He hasn’t seen one of his two daughters for seven years, after the authorities refused to allow her to visit him. Karage’s mother died about a year ago. The day after his release he visited her grave, and a huge photo of her now hangs on the wall of his new home, alongside his picture, on which is printed the number 28 − the number of years he spent in prison. Only his sisters were allowed to visit him over the years.

Karage didn’t have a chance to marry before he went to prison: “I wasn’t even 22 years old. I still didn’t understand anything. I only understood that there was an occupation, that there were checkpoints where they stopped you, that there were soldiers who slapped you, cursed you, made you stand for hours with your face to the wall, and there were settlers. I knew that I wasn’t living in freedom in my country and so I decided to do something. In the atmosphere at the time, that was the form of resistance. I didn’t know the soldier. He was a victim of the occupation just as I was a victim of the occupation. I know that he has a family, that he had a life, but many of our dear friends were killed, too.”

Nasser didn’t believe until the last moment that he would be released. “I said to my friends: Don’t believe it until the warden calls each and every one of you. We heard a lot about releases [in the past], but on every occasion we lost.”
When an officer called Nasser on Monday of last week, and told him that he was being released, he believed it. A Shin Bet security services investigator who interrogated him before he was freed turned on a computer and showed him the photo of his house. “He said to me: That’s your house, now you’re being released. Be very careful about everything you do.”

Neither man is permitted to leave the Ramallah area for a year or the area of the West Bank for the next 10 years. Nasser had dreamed of traveling to Brazil to meet his son.

After nearly three decades, both men say they didn’t recognize most of their friends and family members. “I keep asking: Are you Mohammed? No, I’m Mahmoud. Are you Sair? No, I’m Salah.” And Karage asks every visitor: “Whose son are you?”

The celebration in the village, in the middle of the night, was huge. The streets filled with 3,000 people. They barely recognize their village, which has developed since the last time they saw it. Nasser’s sister’s son phones from Jordan. This is the first time uncle and nephew have ever spoken.

Nasser and Karage talk about the last chance to make peace. Nasser speaks of the “golden opportunity,” and Karage says: “We mustn’t get involved in another confrontation. Everyone will lose from it. Now there are negotiations, and we’re not in a hurry. You [Israelis] have to hurry. You’re the strong ones. You ask what we’re giving you in exchange for the prisoner release? What do we have to give? We’ve given everything. Now it’s your turn to give. Now it’s your turn for tough decisions, because you’re the strong ones and you’re the occupiers.

“You think everything is fine with you − the economy is good, you have democracy, you’re strong. But that’s a mistake. Look at the Arab Spring. You think it won’t happen to you. In Egypt, they also thought that what happened in Tunisia wouldn’t happen to them. In Syria, they thought that what was happening in Egypt and Libya wouldn’t happen to them. Now you’re saying that it won’t happen to you.

“It won’t happen to you in the same way. Your boys won’t take to the city squares to demand a regime change. For you, there’s democracy and the rule of law. But your boys have to take to the streets to demand an end to the occupation. You have a moral obligation: not only to take to the streets and to bring about social change, but to understand that everything is connected, the economy and the occupation.

“And your young people also have a moral obligation to other young people, who also want a future, like your young people. They also want high-tech, like yours. I know that there’s a decent part of your nation that understands that it has a moral obligation, and there’s another part that doesn’t know where it’s living. What does it want? Do they want an occupation? To expel the Palestinians? Two states? One state? You have irresponsible politicians. They’re not taking responsibility for your future.”

The public battle in Israel against their release angered Karage: “I heard [about it] and said I don’t believe it. They talk about us as though we were SS officers. Are we like that? To such an extent? What did we do? We opposed the
occupation.”

Alex Levac