Twilight Zone / Vacation Time in Jenin

Two hundred prisoners from the Jenin refugee camp; only two of them were freed. 'There's not a second that I don't think about Samer,' says the mother of a man who has been in prison for 21 years.

The load of tar that was sent from Tul Karm was delayed at the checkpoint for about two hours, during which the workers stood by idly in the heat. A $300,000 contribution, from the governments of Japan and Spain, momentarily roused the Jenin refugee camp from its lethargy, and this week they began the infrastructure work to drain the rainwater. For 18 days, 219 workers will earn 60 shekels a day for digging up roads, laying pipes and carving out drainage channels.

Bread, work - and already everything looks different in this impoverished camp. Bulldozers instead of tanks, backhoes instead of Kalashnikovs. Bit by bit, they dig up the roads that already bear the scars of the countless explosives that were placed on them in the past months against IDF forces that carried out raids here nearly every night. This time the roads were paved so they'd be wide enough to accommodate tanks, if and when the need rises.

At noon on this hot day, a worker pours water from a large cola bottle into the steamroller. Fathers have sent their children to work. It's prohibited, but the members of the camp committee turn a blind eye. This is the summer vacation for kids in Jenin - paving and building. It's also the time to shop for school supplies for the coming year and suddenly there's a little money. Thus, preparing the camp for winter also helps to prepare kids for school. Just look what one modest contribution can do.

At night, IDF troops again came onto the road that overlooks the camp from the hills. Whether or not they're "strengthening" Abu Mazen, the IDF is in the field. Disarmed or not, militants opened fire on the soldiers. Business as usual.

Only Zakariya Zbeidi is going around unarmed, and his uncle Jamal tells him he looks "stoned." It's been years since the uncle saw his nephew without his pistol and his Kalashnikov. Now he's more scared for Zakariya than ever: They don't trust the IDF in the camp, nor the agreements that were reached. Still, you hardly see any armed men in the camp now.

Zbeidi's three brothers are still in jail, goodwill gesture or not: Yihya with a 16-year sentence; Jibril, who ran a tire shop, with a 12-year sentence; and Daoud, who's awaiting trial. About 200 men from the camp are imprisoned in Israeli jails, and only two of them - exactly 1 percent - were freed last weekend as part of the grand gesture.

The two returning sons were not greeted with any special excitement. Not even with a small party. For how could Ibrahim Abu-Halifa celebrate his release, when three of his brothers are still in prison and another brother, Sheikh Mahmoud, was killed while in prison?

Like on the popular TV show "The Biggest Loser," Abu-Halifa lost 26 kilos while in prison. Now he clutches his stomach because of the pain in his kidneys, for which he apparently did not receive proper treatment while imprisoned. He sits in his new house, the one that was built to replace the house the IDF demolished, a house he'd never seen before. Little Sheikh Mahmoud sits on his lap. This is his young nephew, whom he'd never met before, named for his uncle, the deputy commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the camp, who was assassinated in 2004 by a missile fired at him from a combat helicopter. Ibrahim was in prison at the time.

Sheikh Mahmoud was the pride of the family and pictures of him hang on every wall of the living room. Bespectacled, bearded, armed - just the way I knew him, too. Next to the pictures of him are portraits of the other three brothers who are still in prison. The living room is like a little shrine. There's Rajab, who was sentenced to 10 years; Muhammad, who is in administrative detention, without trial; and Ahmed, who is awaiting trial. All are married with young children. Their mother, Subhiya, who has lost one son and until recently had four more in prison, is knitting a sweater for the cold winter days.

In a stolen Renault Kangoo van, with wedding music blasting from the speakers, and a driver armed with a concealed pistol, we drive through the camp alleys to the family's house. Ibrahim looks more like a bureaucrat than a fighter and freed prisoner. Our escort reminds us that we stood on this very spot after Operation Defensive Shield, together with Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, when we paid a visit then. Then the house was just a heap of rubble.

Ibrahim, who is now 26 but looks at least a decade older, was arrested on November 26, 2003. It was the middle of the night when tanks and jeeps surrounded the house, to which the family had moved after their house was wrecked. Ibrahim is blurry on the details now, but a friend helps him out: The soldiers knocked on the door and called for him to come out, then they tied his hands and blindfolded him, took him in a military jeep to the Salem detention center and beat him on the way. They'd come in search of Sheikh Mahmoud, but they took his brother, who was not on the list of wanted suspects, as a consolation prize.

In the absence of evidence against him, Ibrahim was put in administrative detention for a year. After a year, a collaborator was found to inform against - or frame - him. Here is the amended indictment made in the context of a plea bargain: Case3326/04: "Shooting at someone, a violation of section 58A of the emergency regulations and section 14 of the order regarding the rules of responsibility for a violation (Judea and Samaria)." Twenty-five bullets from a Kalashnikov directed at a convoy traveling on the road. Six and a half years, minus the year already served: Ibrahim was due to be released in another 31 months and five days .

In his four years as a prisoner, Ibrahim was transferred among numerous facilities - Salem, Ofer, Ketziot, Megiddo, Hadarim, Hasharon and Damon. Where was it toughest? "It's tough everywhere." During those four years, his mother was allowed to visit him just six times. During the first year and a half, he had no visitors. Sheikh Mahmoud was killed when Ibrahim was at Megiddo. He heard the news on the radio, from a local station based in nearby Jenin. He managed to call family and friends on a smuggled cell phone, but no one wanted to confirm the news. Finally, his cellmates informed him that it was true, that Sheikh Mahmoud was dead. "It was a very hard day, a sad day," he says now, dryly.

A few months later, Ibrahim decided to ask to meet one of his imprisoned brothers. In a childish hand, he wrote: "To the commander of Wing 3 of Damon Prison. I, prisoner Ibrahim Abu-Halifa, ask for your help to visit my brother who is in Hadarim prison. His name is Rajab. With all due respect, Ibrahim Abu-Halifa." The commander's written reply: "1. Your request for a meeting with your brother Rajab has been approved. 2. The date of the meeting will be determined later."

Ibrahim is the camp painter. Before he was jailed, he had painted several of the houses that were rebuilt after all the destruction of Operation Defensive Shield. Someone else had to paint his new house for him.

Have you changed?

"Only in the state of my health."

What was the hardest thing?

"Not seeing my mother."

Last Tuesday night at 10, they came to his cell with a list and told him: You're free. Get your clothes, we're taking you to Ketziot. Ibrahim says he was glad. He had no problem signing a paper pledging not to return to terror. He doesn't think that he ever engaged in terror. And he has no idea why he in particular was picked to be released. Lately, he'd been losing hope of an early release. But he won't be truly happy until all his brothers are free.

Now he's going to keep busy looking after his young nephews, whose fathers are still in jail. Everything's so different in the camp, he says. The houses, the people. New children were born. Others died or were killed.

In the Sabah al-Khayr ("Good Morning") neighborhood, a relatively well-off area on the outskirts of Jenin, sits a nice house whose inhabitants haven't known a moment of peace in the past 21 years. Samer Mahroum, from the Popular Front, was arrested in 1986 and convicted of murdering Eliahu Amedi, a student at the Shuvu Banim yeshiva in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City. Samer was 21 when he was put in jail. Now he is 41. Almost any Jew convicted of murder would have been released by now. The only hope his family has is that more soldiers will be abducted and then Samer's release could be part of a deal for their release.

Israel's prisoner release "gesture" included only prisoners who were given short sentences, mostly younger ones, who might be more likely to return to the cycle of violence, rather than those who have served decades and are getting old by now. Minister Gideon Ezra thinks this is a mistake. He said last week that it's those who have served long sentences who ought to be released as a gesture, but then there's that whole "blood on their hands" problem.

Now Samer is not far from home, in the Gilboa prison. A picture of him in the prison, kissing his mother's hands on one of her few visits, hangs on the wall. For the past four months, Yusra Mahroum has not been able to obtain permission to visit her son. At one point, she was unable to see him for two whole years. She says she's happy that two men from the camp were released, but she knows that they served two-thirds of their sentences and that in Israel, most Jewish prisoners are released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.

"It's not a step toward peace," she says. "And besides, they're still arresting more and more young men every night."

What punishment does your son deserve?

"He has spent 21 years in prison. What more do they want? He killed a settler. Haven't the settlers killed? And the soldiers? Are they in jail? Samer has served more than any Jew. If he were a Jew, he'd have been out after 15 or 16 years.

"I'm proud of my son. He's not a murderer, he's a freedom fighter. It's a war and he took part in it. He killed in the context of war. God knows when he'll be freed. We thought that the Israelis really wanted to support Abu Mazen and that they would release prisoners who've been sitting in prison for many years. Basically, they're telling us that they'll only free long-time prisoners if there are abducted soldiers. There's not a minute, not a second, that I don't think about Samer. For 21 years. Even when another son is getting married, I'm thinking about Samer. Only when I visit him in prison do I forget the pain, forget the hardships, forget the way the jailers treat me, just for those few minutes with Samer."

At the end of the month, the family will have something to celebrate: Samer's brother, who hasn't seen him in 15 years, received permission to visit him in prison.