Release of Palestinian prisoners still a hot-button issue

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JERUSALEM — For five years, Ahmad Soub-Laban sat in Israeli jails.

Soub-Laban had killed a neighbor he suspected of collaborating with the Israelis and had thrown gasoline bombs at Israeli policemen.

Even now, he doesn't regret a thing.

"It was all in the service of our people," said Soub-Laban, 28, now chairman of the Jerusalem chapter of the Prisoners Club, a nationwide organization with a primary goal of helping families of Palestinian security prisoners.

Israel released last week, as a gesture of goodwill, Khalil Sa'adi A-Ra'ei — the longest-serving Palestinian prisoner. A-Ra'ei had served 25 years for having taken part in the murder of an Israeli police officer.

The issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners is still the major stumbling block in implementing the Wye accord. The two parties are at odds over how many, and which, prisoners should be released.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to release 750 prisoners, but let go only 250 — 150 common criminals and 100 security prisoners.

The Palestinians now insist that Israel should release another group of 650 security prisoners.

Last week, the cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed the principle that had guided the previous government — not to release prisoners "with blood on their hands."

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin sided with the Palestinian view that once Israel negotiated with leaders of former terrorist organizations, it should no longer rule out amnesty for their emissaries.

"We have no moral right to do so," Beilin said.

But Beilin's voice was a lone one.

"There is no intention to release prisoners with blood on their hands who had murdered Israelis," said Haim Ramon, the cabinet member in the Prime Minister's Office responsible for Jerusalem affairs.

The cabinet also reaffirmed the policy that only members of organizations that had stopped supporting terrorism — and only those who were arrested before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords — would be considered for amnesty.

These stipulations ruled out members of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other organizations that reject the peace process.

According to Ramon, out of 1,894 security prisoners now being held in Israeli jails, only 75 "have no blood on their hands." This is a far cry from the 650 that the Palestinians hope to see released.

In an effort to dismantle this human — and political — land mine, Palestinian minister Hisham Abdul Razek this week visited Palestinian prisoners in the Negev Desert and in Ashkelon. The Palestinians were trying to come up with a list of prisoners they believe could be accepted by the Israelis as eligible for release.

It all seemed too familiar to Soub-Laban.

"Four years ago I was there, in the same situation," he recalled.

Soub-Laban, a member of Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party, said he had received an order to beat up one of his neighbors, suspected of having collaborated with the Israelis.

He carried out his mission with total devotion. The man died of his wounds, and Soub-Laban was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

He served only five years because he was one of the prisoners who, despite having "blood on their hands," was freed by the government of Yitzhak Rabin.

Soub-Laban said six of his eight brothers have served jail time at one time or another. His younger brother, Aiman, 20, was sentenced a month and a half ago to two years in jail for having thrown gasoline bombs at police officers.

"We are no exception," Soub-Laban said. ''You will hardly find a Palestinian family which is not connected to the intifada one way or another," referring to the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising.

His prison mate was Mohammad Abu-Saleh, who was sentenced for having thrown a hand grenade at police officers near his residence at the Shuafat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem.

"The policemen were protecting workers on a new road to the new Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev," said Abu-Saleh, 35.

"I did it because the Israelis behave as if this entire country belongs to them," he added. "I did not want to hurt Israelis as a target, but rather as a way of telling the authorities: 'Let us live in peace.'"

Abu-Saleh, who served seven years in jail, claims that his "belligerent act" has proved fruitful.

"Their release will strengthen the position of our leadership." Abu-Saleh said.

"The prisoners' issue is a test case for our relations," Soub-Laban warned. "It is a time bomb. Unless it is defused, it will blow up and cause a new intifada."