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.”
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.”
Israel and Iran are fighting a not-so-secret clandestine war. But Israel is likely to attack Iran’s nuclear program this spring, making it official.