The Prisoner Who Said No Thanks' When Offered His Freedom

The battle of nerves lasted an hour and a half. On February 21, the day 500 Palestinian prisoners were released by Israel, the last bus leaving the Ketziot compound was delayed. The reason: Prisoner Ibrahim al-Zir refused to leave prison. Zir, a resident of Bethlehem, caused injuries to an Israeli in 1985 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had one month left until his prison term was up.

When his name was called out from the list of prisoners to be released, Zir said, "No thanks"; he doesn't want any favors. He asked for someone with a longer sentence to be released in his place. "I felt humiliated, I felt they were making a mockery of us," Zir said last week from his brother's home in Ta'amra, in southern Bethlehem.

Later he said, "The officer on duty threatened to put me in solitary confinement when he heard I refused to be released. On the day of the release he said that if I didn't join the others, the last 50 prisoners wouldn't be freed. But I know the law better than he does. I was in prison for 20 years and know all the rules. A decision about releasing prisoners is not in the hands of a 22-year-old officer."

The bus was delayed for more than an hour, and the prisoners pleaded with Zir to get on, or he would jeopardize their release. But Zir withstood the pressure and the bus finally left. "A week later," Zir smiles, "the same officer said that if he were in my shoes, he would have done the same." On March 21, Zir left prison.

Zir was arrested when he was less than 17 years old. On September 5, 1985 he planted explosives behind the Mashbir department store in Jerusalem. The explosive device didn't go off, and he returned the following day with an improved device and set it in the same place. "I waited for an hour and again, no explosion. I returned to pick it up, and then it exploded." An Israeli citizen was injured. Zir lost his left eye.

Zir has been held in some 12 different prisons, the last of which was Ketziot. His repeated requests to reduce a third of his sentence were rejected. According to Israel, he had "blood on his hands." To this he responds: "I saw myself as a soldier, and this is how I view the Israeli soldier, only a year older than I was when I planted the bomb. I don't judge him, I don't say `he has blood on his hands.' He is carrying out orders. He hasn't come here with the intention of killing us. He sees himself as fulfilling the task of defending the state.

"We acted to defend our rights. We joined the armed conflict from choice, but also from necessity, because our people is occupied. Had we greater abilities, had there been more of our people who believed in the struggle against occupation, had we defined our goals, we could have led a popular struggle .... The mistakes of the various Arab leaderships should be examined .... But Israel is the stronger party, therefore its mistakes are graver."

When asked about planting the bomb, Zir says, "I was angry at myself for not doing more. I saw myself as a hero. Today I know I was a child. In retrospect, I would not have done what I did then. Then, our goal was not defined; today it is clear. Then we only thought that the Palestinian problem must be brought to the world's attention, and we thought of the occupation as pertaining [to all of Israel], from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

"The clear thinking developed here in the territories occupied after 1967, and first of all among the prisoners. We prepared the ground for the thinking that drove the first intifada, whose activists demanded that the PLO come out with a clear political plan. We learned that Israel cannot be destroyed, that we need coexistence with the Israelis. When I speak of living together with the Israelis, I say it not as a result of exhaustion, but rather as a result of understanding."