JENIN—“You can’t imagine what it feels like to know you’re leaving prison to live with your family again,” says Sabih Abed Hammed Borhan, who was released last week along with 25 other Palestinian prisoners.
The 26 freed men represent the first of four phases that will total 104 high-level “security” prisoners Israel claims to be releasing as a “goodwill gesture” as direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel get underway.
Surrounded by a dozen or so relatives and neighbors, Borhan sips coffee and chain smokes as he explains the conditions of his release. Situated on the outskirts of Jenin, a bright yellow flag emblazoned with emblem of Fatah — the ruling Palestinian political party in the occupied West Bank — flutters against a dim backdrop in his front yard.
“It can’t be explained, this feeling,” he continues, gesturing toward his two sons, Laif and Mahmoud. “It’s hope, happiness, thankfulness — but there’s also sadness.”
When Borhan was arrested in 2001, his children were 3 and 6 years old. Laif, who was in the first grade the last time he touched his father, is now a first-year university student majoring in English literature.
From the 104 to be released, Borhan is the only prisoner not in prison since before the Oslo Accords agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
After reconciling to being locked away for a sentence of six life terms, Borhan had integrated into a tight-knit and extremely organized community of Palestinians inside Israeli prisons. He gained his belated freedom, but over 5,000 prisoners, including his brother, remain behind bars.
“They told me I was going home, that my name was on the list, just five minutes before we left,” he explains. “I didn’t have time to say goodbye.”
A wanted man
After being arrested and imprisoned for the murder of Palestinian collaborators during the First Intifada, Borhan was freed in a 1994 prisoner release deal as part of the Oslo Accords. He immediately began working in the security department of the newborn Palestinian Authority, established that same year.
For years, Borhan traveled throughout the West Bank, dealing with Israeli soldiers on a regular basis. “I drove to work from Jenin to Ramallah each day,” he says. “They never gave me any serious trouble… I even traveled to Jordan three times.”
Yet one day in February 2001, as Borhan and four other PA security officers commuted from Jenin to their job in Ramallah, an Israeli military jeep pulled them over. After searching the car and accusing them of hiding weapons, the soldiers returned and informed Borhan he was under arrested for “being a wanted man,” he says. His colleagues were released and sent back to Jenin.
Initially, he claims, he was told he would only be held for an eight-day interrogation period. But after those eight days were up, he was never released. “They started accusing me of kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in 1995. But they know very well that had I done that, I couldn’t have been working in the PA and traveling freely through their checkpoints every day for years.”
Borhan claims to have been held in interrogation for 115 days at the infamous Hawwara checkpoint between Ramallah and Nablus. “They tried to break me by telling me that no one cares about me and I should just confess. They said, the PA is going to collapse soon, we’re going to take it down, and then everyone will forget you.”
During this period, Borhan accuses Israeli secret service of tying his hands to a window in his holding cell for three days and scarcely permitting him restroom access.
When he finally met with a judge, he explained he “was no longer a ‘wanted man’ because I was released under an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.”
According to Borhan, the judge agreed, but instead of dismissing his case, merely told Borhan that he was “not a political man and didn’t have any interests in politics.” In 2003, an Israeli military court in the occupied West Bank sentenced him to six life terms, convicting him on new charges as well as reinstating his previous sentence, thanks to Israeli military order 1651 article 186.
Though Borhan readily admits that he “carried a weapon during the First Intifada” — which was a largely unarmed uprising against Israeli occupation — he insists that he never broke the terms of his first release agreement.
“I explained to the judge and the secret service that they were breaking a serious diplomatic agreement by re-arresting me without charge,” he says. “But a female intelligence officer once replied: ‘We decide when we honor agreements and when we take them away.’”
Prison conditions “unbearable”
Immediately after his sentencing in 2003, Borhan says that he spent 18 days in solitary confinement.
From 2001 to 2004, Borhan alleges that he was denied all family visits, including from his parents, his wife and his two sons. Once visits began, he received one a year — though his mother and sister were continually denied visits by Israeli authorities, as reported by Mondoweiss recently.
“If they refuse to allow us visits, fine — but let us hear the voice of our mothers, our wives, our children,” he says, explaining the very infrequent access to telephones.
On top of “unbearable living conditions,” Israel frequently moves Palestinian political prisoners, particularly the influential ones, shuttling them to different prisons across Israel and the occupied West Bank every few months. Though prison transfers are often done for legitimate reasons, rights groups and prisoners say Israel more times than not uses it as a form of punishment.
“Being moved is very difficult,” Brohan reflects. “We [prisoners] are already denied our family and friends outside, but it is a way for Israel to prevent or smash any community-building within prison.”
In other cases, there are reports of explicit physical violence against prisoners. Israel Prison Service (IPS) is the frequent target of press releases issued by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Fares Ziad, a lawyer at Addameer Prisoner Support Network, recently reported that “one hunger striker [was] savagely beaten by five Israeli soldiers,” referring to Mohammed Rimawi. Ziad added that a soldier later threatened to force-feed Rimawi if he did not abandon his strike, which was later given up as part of an agreement reached between IPS and Jordanian detainees.
Borhan and another former prisoner, who requested to remain anonymous, both told Mint Press News that political prisoners were regularly stuck in overcrowded cells and transferred on buses with Israeli criminal prisoners convicted of violent crimes.
“Let me ask you, who gets to judge Israel?” asks the prisoner. “Who gets to decide if Israel is telling the truth about prisoners? They can do what they want.”
A bigger prison
Though Borhan repeatedly expresses elation at being home, the conditions of his release agreement, which he did not consent to, place severe restrictions on his basic rights to movement.
Once a month, he will have to visit the military chief in charge of the Jenin district for an interview. To make matters worse, he is confined to Jenin and the immediately surrounding villages for at least one year. After that, he will have to get permission from the military chief in order to leave the district. Additionally, for 10 years he is banned from traveling outside of the West Bank without the special permission of the military.
Though 23,000 Palestinians have been freed as “goodwill gestures” since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, some 86,000 men, women and children have been arrested and tossed behind bars — often under administrative detention, a draconian practice in which Palestinians are held on “secret evidence” with neither charge nor trial.
“[The] 104 pre-Oslo prisoners were slated to be released as a precondition in previous negotiations that Israel reneged on,” an Addameer press release stated. The strict rules imposed on Borhan aren’t unique — they are the standard conditions imposed on former prisoners.
The press release further details Israel’s practice of re-arresting previous prisoners and reinstating their sentences on flimsy or no evidence. “Military order 1651 article 186… allows for a special Military Committee to re-arrest released prisoners based on so-called ‘secret information’ and convict them to serve the remainder of their previous sentences.”
While most Israelis are outraged by the release of Palestinian prisoners — many of whom were convicted of violent crimes — Palestinians are likewise perturbed by the secretive and repressive conditions that lead to such releases.
Since October 2011, when 1,027 Palestinians were traded in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, at least 12 of the released detainees are already back in prison.
Furthermore, because Israel insisted that the remaining three phases of the releases are contingent on “progress” in the ongoing peace negotiations, most expect that there is very little chance all 104 prisoners will go home.
Borhan says that he doesn’t want to have to live under the constant fear of re-arrest. “Please tell the world about these conditions they put on us [former prisoners],” he concludes. “Tell them that [Israel] didn’t actually give us freedom. I believe that peace is the only path, so I support the peace process. But we weren’t released from prison so that we could just live in a bigger prison.”