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
Since Palestinians are usually incarcerated inside Israel, their families must receive security clearance to cross the border and visit. Karajeh’s family got permission three times to visit her, she said. Her parents filled her bank account at the canteen, where she could buy spices, meat, and clothes at what she said were highly inflated prices.
Karajeh traveled across Israel when she was transferred among prisons. During those trips, she would peer out of the tiny bus windows to catch glimpses of what she calls Palestine. It was her first trip there since she was small. “Even though you are in prison, you think to yourself, it’s comfortable, we are in Palestine,” she said. “They didn’t take us to the normal streets where the regular people live. We were on a highway. We didn’t see people. But we could see the land and the trees.”
Karajeh came home to a hero’s welcome in Saffa on October 18, just before Shalit was released by Hamas. Locals slaughtered two calves in her honor. Well-wishers crowded her house, so much so that Karajeh began slinking away to her room for some peace. There, among her old stuffed animals, 18 plaques honoring her sacrifice to the Palestinian people crowd her bookshelves and bureau.
Fakhri Barghouti’s face is plastered across the village of Kobar. From crude cinder-block walls and the stuccoed sides of homes and shops, a graffiti stencil of Barghouti’s face looks down, victorious. He and his cousin Nael were the two longest-serving Palestinian prisoners released in the exchange, both arrested in 1978. (Nael assisted his cousin in murdering the Israeli officer.) They both returned to the West Bank triumphant, Barghouti riding on the shoulders of young Palestinian men who see him as a national hero.
Last week, Barghouti met me outside his home and slowly walked up the many concrete stairs that led to his living room. His shoes, like Karajeh’s, were brand-new. Before the first interview question, Barghouti opened with a volley of his own: “The occupation takes our land and kills our sons,” he said. “We have to resist. We don’t like killing. Israel made us kill. Israel’s daily attacks on the Palestinian people give us no alternatives.”
Barghouti knew he would pay a heavy price for planning and executing a murder. He missed his two sons’ childhoods. His parents and two brothers died while he was in jail. “The homeland is more important than family,” he said. “The homeland is our mother and father.”
While Karajeh saw little of Israel when she was in prison, Barghouti’s 33-year term brought him into intimate contact with Israeli society. In the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinian prisons were known as “the second university.” Wards were organized by party, and party heads set hours for communal meals, exercise, and lessons. This is how Barghouti, a Fatah member, learned Hebrew.
He used it to read the autobiographies and political writings of most Israeli leaders, part of the 2,000 volumes he pored through in more than three decades. He particularly liked the writing of Israel’s current prime minister. “Netanyahu, he said what he thought,” Barghouti said. “In his book, he said no to peace, no compromise. He is clear. And Rabin, he was an enemy of the Palestinian people, but he worked hard for his own nation.”
Barghouti fought the prison authorities consistently, with hunger strikes for better conditions. “In the beginning, we slept on thin rubber mattresses,” he said. “And our blankets were not warm enough. We didn’t want to live in a hotel, but as humans. And our conditions did slowly improve. We got proper mattresses and pillows.” Television and radio came in 1985. Seven years later, another hunger strike brought Arabic TV channels. Those small victories helped him cultivate a hope that he would be released, as other Palestinian prisoners had been in 15 previous deals since 1967.
In 2004, Barghouti’s sons, Shadi and Hadi, joined him in prison. “I was watching Israeli Channel 2, and I saw my sons are going to jail,” he said. The two brothers were accused of plotting to kidnap an Israel solider. Shadi was also accused of conspiring to kill an Israeli soldier. When Barghouti was imprisoned one of his sons was an infant and the other still in the womb. “So, after all these years we met each other. The meeting was so hard. All the prison cried. I have never had a more difficult day than the day I met my sons.” Haaretz reported that Barghouti’s two sons slept on the floor huddled with their father in cell 21 of Ashkelon’s prison for the first nights; he fed them with food he bought in the canteen.
They did not call each other father and son; Barghouti had missed out on raising them. But Barghouti saw in Shadi and Hadi younger versions of himself. “I saw myself in everything they did,” he said. “It was like reliving my childhood.” Hadi has since been released; Shadi remains in prison. A banner featuring Fakhri and Shadi hangs in Barghouti’s living room.
As we spoke, Barghouti’s wife, Sameera, sat down on a living room couch. She wore a flowing, loose floral veil and a green velvet skirt. She waited for her husband for 33 years, betting he would return. On the day of his release, she went with friends and relatives to greet him at the Muqata, the Palestinian Authority compound where Yasser Arafat is interred. “We were afraid and not afraid,” she said. “We had been so disappointed from the previous swap deals. We did not believe this deal would come through until Fakhri came to the house.”
Sameera said that she wrote letters to her husband during his incarceration; most were not delivered. To keep in touch, Sameera spoke about him on Palestinian radio, hoping he might hear the broadcasts in jail. I asked Barghouti how it felt to see himself growing older while in captivity. He dismissed the question and grinned. “People get old,” he said. “It’s natural. It doesn’t matter if you are inside or outside. But I feel like I’m 30 years old.” Since his release, Sameera says “it is as if we are young again.”
Now that he is back in Kobar, Barghouti is slowly readjusting. He dotes on his grandchildren—Hadi’s son and daughters—who cling to him even though they have known him for only a month. One 3-year-old granddaughter has straight brown hair in a bob that swings as she skips at Barghouti’s side. She says her name is Majdal, “like Askalan.” (The Israeli city that is today Ashkelon was known as Majdal or Askalan in Arabic. Israel evacuated its Arab residents, mostly to Gaza, in 1950.)
While Karajeh returned home with dreams of picking up where she left off, Barghouti knows that isn’t possible. He tells me he is talking with the Palestinian Authority about a possible job in education, though has not yet found a position. But he has no regrets about killing that officer. “I feel proud of my people, of my family, of my sons, and of myself,” he said. “My time in jail was for Palestine.”
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