Two Palestinian prisoners released in the Shalit deal, now home in the West Bank, express no regrets and view prison time as service to their cause
Fakhri Barghouti was a trim 24-year-old house painter with a jet-black pompadour when he plunged a knife into an Israeli officer near the village of Nebi Saleh, on the border of the West Bank and Israel, in 1978. Sentenced to life in prison for killing the soldier, Barghouti walked out of jail last month in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. He arrived in his village of Kobar, just north of Ramallah, with a barrel chest and a slight stoop. His hair was silver and his bottom teeth missing. Thirty-three years later, his home town had boomed from a sleepy hamlet of 1,000 people to a suburb five times its size. His sons were grown; his wife had aged. Like Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in the mountains for 20 years, Barghouti returned to a life where he felt almost everything had changed except himself.
“I felt like a time machine,” he told me. “I could not believe all the buildings. And when I came to the village, I didn’t know a soul.”
In the village of Saffa, west of Ramallah, Sumoud Karajeh, 23, is marveling at her new lease on life. In 2009, Karajeh was sentenced to 20 years in prison for stabbing a guard at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
“When I was in prison, I thought I will not be a mother, I won’t study until I am 40 years old,” Karajeh said last week in her living room. Now she’s moved back into her childhood bedroom, reconnected with friends, and plans to study social work at Al Quds Open University as she did before her arrest. “I will have a normal life,” she said.
Barghouti and Karajeh are only two of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners Israel agreed to release last month in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured and held by Hamas since June 2006. Even though most Israelis support the swap, most also recoil at the idea that convicted militants like Barghouti and Karajeh have been given a chance to lead normal lives. And yet both say they have no regrets about the crimes they committed. For Barghouti and Karajeh, and scores of other Palestinians who could otherwise never enter Israel, prison, in fact, offers a rare opportunity to live in the belly of the beast. It serves as a rite of passage—a forge where Palestinian national ideals are hammered into place.
Karajeh spoke to me on a rainy day last week. A tiny schoolgirl carrying a yellow umbrella had pointed the way to Karajeh’s home at the edge of the village of about 4,000. A banner of Palestinian flags fluttered over olive trees in the yard. On the front door was a poster: “Free Palestinian Prisoners,” it said in English and Arabic. Inside, the house was cold enough to wear a jacket. A picture of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas embracing Karajeh leaned on a shelf next to an oversized stuffed puppy. Karajeh and her mother, Hanan, sat on ornate wooden chairs upholstered in gold. Karajeh wore a bright patterned headscarf, pristine white sneakers, jeans, and a blue cardigan. Pale, with thick black eyeliner and full lips, she had a gap between her front teeth that made her look younger than 23. While she spoke, her mother brought out tiny cups of strong coffee.
Though Karajeh admitted she was in prison because she stabbed an Israeli soldier, she refused to give any details about the stabbing or her motivation. An onlooker captured the event on a cell-phone video and posted it to YouTube. Karajeh said that Israeli intelligence officers had summoned her to the Ofer compound near Ramallah for a two-hour interrogation two days before we met, and she was still rattled by it.
The hardest thing about prison, Karajeh said, was the first 30 days. Israeli intelligence officers interrogated her deep underground in the Russian Compound, a prison steps from Zion Square in central Jerusalem, she said. For a month, Karajeh saw only the investigation room and the tiny cell where she was in solitary confinement. She could not tell what time it was. “Prison was like a grave,” Karajeh said.
I asked her how she stayed sane. “Well, my name is Sumoud,” she quipped. Sumoud is Arabic for steadfastness. “The soldiers would shout, and I would think to myself about my life, about my village and my street and my house,” she said. “I would remember my relatives and name their children in my head, and I would sing to myself.”
A religious Muslim, Karajeh said she trusted that Allah would deliver her from her suffering. And once she was tried and sentenced, life improved. Karajeh was transferred to the women’s division of Hadarim prison, and three months later to Damoun in northern Israel. It was her first time away from home, where she was one of seven brothers and sisters. The other Palestinian prisoners took pity on her. “They were kind to me because I was the youngest,” she said. “They would bring me gifts from the canteen. They would teach me things like English and Hebrew.”
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