For One Palestinian, Freedom Is More Dangerous Than Prison

Hani Jaber, a Palestinian convicted of murder who was released in the Shalit deal, doesn't dare return to his home in Hebron: Settlers are threatening to kill him.

Hani Jaber hasn't yet returned home for even a minute. He's been a free man for more than a month, having been released in the Shalit deal after spending 18 years in an Israeli prison. He was not exiled, like many of the other released prisoners. But he hasn't gone home, either. Jaber fears for his life. The Israeli army has advised him not to go home. Since his release he has been living in fear, in hiding in an apartment belonging to relatives in Hebron, not daring to go out in the street. He feels persecuted.

In a country where a respected MK can allow himself to preach murder ("Blessed shall be the hands that will kill the released murderers," said MK Aryeh Eldad of National Union the day after the prisoners' release, and no one thought he should be put on trial ), Jaber is a marked man. In a country in which settlers can take out a contract on a released prisoner - a reward of $100,000 has been offered for information on Jaber's whereabouts, and in Hebron there are posters in Hebrew and Arabic urging people to come forward with information about him - Jaber is apparently living on borrowed time.

Hani Jaber - Miki Kratsman
Miki Kratsman

Jaber has blood on his hands. Eighteen years ago, as a high-school student who had undergone frequent abuse and attacks by settlers and seen his family similarly treated, he took a kitchen knife and murdered the settler Erez Shmuel who, he said, had attacked his younger sister. Jaber was sentenced to two life terms (the reason for the second one is unclear ), served part of his sentence and was released legally. But he felt a lot safer in jail than he does now, as a free man. Naturally, no one has lifted a finger to protect him or try those who are inciting to murder him.

Now 36, he is bearded, restrained, sturdy and broad-shouldered - he obviously kept in shape during his years in prison. He learned a little Hebrew and completed two semesters of correspondence courses in the Hebrew University's Middle East Studies Department, until his studies were stopped when stricter conditions were imposed on the Palestinian security prisoners. He also became religiously observant in prison while sharing a cell with Hamas men. Jaber is now more religious than his father, Ramsi, a worried man in a suit and tie who guards his son closely and fears for his life. Jaber came to our meeting in a safe house in the heart of Hebron accompanied by his father. "He is my bodyguard," he said with a smile.

Their home is in the middle of the ethnically-cleansed quarter that is under Israeli control in Area H2 of Hebron. They are among the few Palestinians who were allowed to live near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, amid the violent settlers. Ramsi's souvenir shop across from the tomb has long been shut. The family does not have the means to escape the settlers' terror and move to a safer location, as many residents of this quarter did. It is now a ghost neighborhood, the stores sealed and most of the homes abandoned.

Jaber's childhood memories are studded with attacks and pogroms. On one occasion four armed settlers attacked him in the street near his home, breaking his jaw and landing him in hospital. For a month the youngster could not take food into his mouth. Jaber says he filed a complaint with the Israel Police but that they did nothing. On another occasion his leg was fractured in an attack by settlers. He watched the settlers routinely rip head coverings off the heads of his sisters and their friends and throw bags filled with garbage and feces at them. A female cousin, Aziza Jaber, who was in labor and on the way to give birth, was shot to death by a settler, probably from the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba. She was 30 at the time of her death.

After that event his anger swelled. He was still in high school and had no ties with any organization. He decided to act alone and exact retribution. On May 29, 1993, a settler assaulted his 9-year-old sister as she was coming home from school. Jaber hurried home, took a kitchen knife, fell on Erez Shmuel in a fit of rage, stabbed him in the chest and took his pistol. Shmuel collapsed and died. The incident took place about 30 meters from Jaber's home. The young murderer told no one what he had done, not his parents and not his friends. Six months went by and he went on with his life as usual, going to school every day - on the days when there was no curfew. The fact that he had no ties to any organization and that no one knew what he had done enabled him to escape temporarily.

Jaber says now that he thought he did the right thing in taking revenge on the person who had attacked his sister. However, he understood even then that he had solved nothing with his deed. The settlers' attacks only worsened and the curfews and closures were extended. After the murder, he says, he felt the need for someone to adopt him and he tried to join one of the organizations - Fatah, Hamas or the Popular Front - but was not accepted.

Half a year later, on one of the endless curfew days imposed on the quarter's Palestinian residents, soldiers arrived and made wide-scale arrests in the neighborhood. Jaber was one of those taken into custody, but the soldiers had no idea he was wanted for murder. He thinks he was arrested because the Israelis knew he had tried to join one of the organizations. He was taken to Nablus prison, interrogated by the Shin Bet security service and placed in isolation. Twenty-five days later he was put into a room with stoolies, whose task is to induce others to talk. To provoke him, they asked what he had done to avenge his cousin's murder. They also bragged about their own heroic deeds. Not wanting to be outdone, young Jaber told them that he too had something to boast about.

The field worker Musa Abu-Hashhash from the human rights organization B'Tselem, who took us to the meeting with Jaber, smiles. He remembers that years ago, when he was held in custody for a few days, stoolies were brought into his cell and he too wanted to brag about some act of heroism, but had nothing to tell. When Jaber says he spent five months in isolation, Abu-Hashhash says he was in isolation for 11 days and thought the world around him had ended.

Jaber was tried in a military court. His lawyer did not show up and he was convicted of murder on the basis of his confession; within minutes he was sentenced to two life terms. He has no idea what the second life term was for. A newspaper report from that time fails to explain why he received two life terms and not one. He did not see his parents for a year after his arrest. And he did not see his younger brother, Jud, for 18 years. Jud, himself a released prisoner, was never allowed to visit him. For five consecutive years, during the second intifada, he did not have even one family visit. His mother fell ill with cancer and he thought she had died. In recent years his father received a permit to visit him once every six or seven months. He was not allowed to make one phone call during his 18 years in prison.

Jaber was moved around between prisons - there aren't many detention facilities in Israel in which he was not incarcerated. During the years of negotiations, he built up hopes of being released upon the advent of peace. But peace did not come and he and his comrades lost hope of being freed as part of a political agreement. He thought he would never get out, even though he says he knew the oppression of his people could not go on forever. Gilad Shalit's abduction sparked renewed hope among the prisoners. But Jaber did not know until the last minute whether he was on the list of prisoners to be freed.

Upon his release, Jaber was taken to the Muqata, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas. There he also met his parents and his siblings, including Jud, whom he did not recognize. At the same time, he relates, soldiers arrived at the family home and ordered them not to hang out flags, not to decorate the house with posters and not to hold any celebrations, for fear of the settlers. They also advised Jaber not to go home, even for a visit. The freed prisoner was taken to a ceremony in his city for the released prisoners, but he decided that for the present he would not go to his home, which he hasn't see for 18 years. In the meantime, posters with his photograph appeared in the streets with a phone number to call to provide information on his whereabouts. His father says that their home has been pelted with stones several times by settlers seeking revenge. A few settlers showed up at the grocery store of his sister-in-law Ibtisam and frightened her badly. They have also threatened other relatives. Jaber says he is also concerned about the many collaborators, who are liable to reveal his hiding place. He wants to become a social worker, marry and raise a family. In the meantime, he knows his life is in danger. Great danger.