By Omar Karmi
20 March 2009
The National

It will be Mother’s Day here tomorrow, but along with thousands of other Palestinian mothers, Latifa Abu Humeid, 61, feels little cause to mark the day.

“It’s like any day to me. I think of my sons, all day, every day.”

Nevertheless, Mrs Abu Humeid – she usually goes by Um Yousef – is likely to be honoured on Mother’s Day this year like almost every year. Lining a shelf in her living room in the family house in the Amari refugee camp are numerous certificates of appreciation she has received from various quarters, either the local youth club, the Fatah Movement of which all her 10 sons bar one are members, or Hamas, in which the last was an activist.

Four of those sons are serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons and have been since 2002. A fifth is serving five years. An additional four have been incarcerated at one time or another. The tenth, Abdel Monem, the Hamas member, was killed by the Israeli military.

One son was released in last year’s prisoner exchange between Hizbollah and Israel and Um Yousef hopes the others may be released in a potential Hamas-Israel exchange.

“I am always hopeful,” she said. “I have to be.”
However, a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas is looking ever less likely as Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, nears his last days in office and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister designate and a right-winger opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular, waits in the wings.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the issue to Palestinians.

Since 1967, some 750,000 Palestinians, or about 40 per cent of the male population of the occupied territories, have been imprisoned by Israel.

Hardly anyone has not been affected and the Palestinian Authority has a ministry entirely devoted to prisoners’ affairs. The ministry, among other responsibilities, pays compensation to the families of detainees, many of whom have lost their sole providers.

The compensation is scaled. Only one of Um Yousef’s sons currently in prison has a family, a wife and two young children. As a Palestinian Authority employee, his salary continues to be paid in full to the family.

The others will receive between 800 and 1,000 Israeli shekels (Dh720 to Dh900) a month. Um Yousef, whose husband Naji is blind, is not considered a dependent and receives nothing. She recently opened a small shop in her home to help pay the bills.

It is a tough existence for a woman whose life is a microcosm of the Palestinian experience. Born in Ramle in 1947, she became a refugee as an infant when her family was forced to flee to the Gaza Strip.

The experience was repeated in 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the family ended up in the Amari camp in Ramallah. Since then her home was demolished twice, each time rebuilt, as punishment for the family’s political activities. But Um Yousef does not consider herself the last of a dying breed even if she is disappointed with the current state of the Palestinian situation.

“The challenges I have faced, I have faced because of the occupation. And as long as the occupation continues, others will face the same challenges. They will have no choice.”

Addameer, a Palestinian human rights organisation that specialises in prisoners’ rights, calculates the total current number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails at just over 8,400.

Addameer includes in this number Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who have been detained as a result of political activity and are classified by Israel as security detainees.

The figure also includes Jerusalemites and Golan Heights residents, as well as more than 560 people who are being held in “administrative detention”, or without trial. About 450 are women and children, prisoners Hamas reportedly wants released in any exchange for Sgt Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured on the border with Gaza in 2005.

The indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over that prisoner exchange have apparently broken down because Israel wants to exile 10 of the people on Hamas’s list and refuses to release another 10. Hamas, which was never in a hurry to finalise any deal not on its terms, has remained adamant in its demands.

But if the trickle of details emerging about the negotiations are correct, a breakthrough of sorts has already been achieved since Israel has in principle agreed to the release of prisoners accused of being involved in the killing of Israelis, or of having “blood on their hands” in the Israeli parlance. Should the exchange go through, it would thus be very significant, according to Ala Jaradat of Addameer.

“Even in the 1990s and at the height of the Oslo process when Israel released thousands of prisoners, it refused to release anyone with Jewish blood on their hands,” Mr Jaradat said, noting that Israel had released some accused of involvement in the killings of Israeli Druze soldiers.

Hamas, Mr Jaradat said, would likely see its popularity spike as a result of a successful conclusion to the deal, though it would not necessarily affect the West Bank PA’s popularity, mainly because “nobody has faith that the policy followed by the Ramallah leadership can secure a release of prisoners”.

Certainly, Um Yousef does not have much confidence in negotiations. The PA, she said, “no longer prioritises the release of prisoners … Now, no one cares”.

Prisoner releases in other conflict situations around the world have been significant in securing political breakthroughs. But the Palestinian situation has been unique in that the Palestinian leadership agreed to negotiate without significant releases, a mistake that keeps being repeated, said Mr Jaradat.

“Whenever we hear about a resumption of the peace process, some international actors will call for a prisoner exchange to boost Palestinian moderates. But it is always left to Israel to decide who and when and Israel’s record – releasing those up for release anyway or engaging in a massive arrest campaign just before – has been offensive in this respect.”

This has left Palestinians generally suspicious that a political process will achieve any release and boosted the idea promoted by Hamas that only an exchange will force Israel’s hand.

“If I had the strength, I would capture 20 Israeli soldiers,” said Um Yousef. “Negotiations are not working, they only make things worse.”