JALAZON REFUGEE CAMP, WEST BANK — Baraah Malki, one of 20 Palestinian prisoners Israel released in exchange for a video of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, can hardly believe that she’s home.
Just as she could hardly believe what she’d done when she woke up in an Israeli prison cell on Nov. 29 last year.
The day before, she’d gone out in the morning on a pretense of leaving for school, but instead headed for an Israeli military checkpoint with a large kitchen knife stashed in her knapsack. She was planning to stab a soldier, but was spotted, she says. She dropped the knife and ran.
She was quickly arrested and later convicted of attempted murder. The sentence was 3.5 years, but because she was only 14, her sentence was reduced to 11 months.
Now in a bit of a daze that she’s actually free, she is back home – one of the first of the 20 prisoners to be released, though the fact that her release was imminent anyway has prompted Israel to free another prisoner on Sunday. Baarah is also the youngest of the group – and probably the only one with braces on her teeth. Like Sergeant Shalit, who was 19 at the time he was captured by Hamas militants in a cross-border raid, her youth seems to underscore the extent to which young people here continue to pay the price of a conflict their elders have failed to solve.
Why she plotted to stab Israeli soldiers
Tall, veiled, and wide-eyed, Baraah is the youngest of eight children, two of them brothers in Israeli jails. More than a year ago, she recalls, the army came to their house here in the Jalazon Refugee Camp, north of Ramallah, in the middle of the night. The soldiers got the whole family up, and then she watched as they dealt roughly with her brother Mohammed, then 18, and ultimately arrested him.
“All of this made me feel that it’s not worth living,” she says, telling of her decision to go on what she envisioned as a suicide attack, expecting to be shot by the soldiers after she stabbed one or two of them. “I wanted to do something, anything, to get revenge.”
When she woke up in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound the next day, a place Israel often holds Palestinian prisoners immediately after arrest, she was shocked and confused. “There were times when I regretted what I did,” she says.
Minister of prisoner affairs pays a visit
On her first day home, the Malki living room keeps filling with well-wishers and curious teenage girls her age – old friends from the camp who now seem young and immature to her.
“What I saw in jail, a woman who’s 50 has not seen,” Baraah says. “Suddenly, I became older. In the interrogation, I was threatened and pushed around to the point where I admitted to things I hadn’t done.”
One of those who has come to celebrate her homecoming is the Palestinian Authority’s minister of Prisoners Affairs, Issa Qraqe. With 7,430 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel on security-related charges, according the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Mr. Qraqe’s position involves arguing for prisoners’ rights and releases, as well as helping the families of those in jail.
Qraqe says this week’s deal appears to be a test of readiness for a more substantial exchange that would involve a much larger number of prisoners in exchange for Shalit. And, he adds, it’s one area where Fatah – the faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority – sees eye to eye with Hamas, the militant organization that ousted its rival from Gaza two years ago.
“This is an indicator and a precursor to a bigger exchange deal,” says Qraqe. “In spite of our political differences with Hamas, prisoners is a subject that no one disagrees on.”
Mothers in prison – and out, waiting anxiously
Many of the other women who went home Friday are older, and some were convicted of more serious offenses during the height of the second intifada, which exploded nine years ago this month.
One, Gaza’s Fatima al-Zeg, who is 40, was arrested by Israeli security forces in May 2007 and charged with being an accomplice to a suicide bombing. She was two months pregnant at the time.
She arrived in Gaza to much fanfare with 18-month-old Yousef, having reared him so far in prison. Hamas proclaimed him “the youngest Palestinian prisoner.”
That having loved ones in prisons is a regular facet of life for many Palestinians is written all over the walls of the Malki’s living room. The walls boast pictures of their imprisoned sons, a guns-and-glory photo of one of their sons’ friends who died a shahid, or martyr, and a bevy of special 8 x 10 cards, provided by the Ministry of Prisoners Affairs, that look like awards. They go out to the mothers of prisoners each year during the major holidays with a small gift, thanking them for their sacrifices to the cause.
Fathiye Malki, Baraah’s mother, says she could deal with that much, but not with having her youngest daughter in jail. Her friend, sitting nearby, says Mrs. Malki had a breakdown when she found out about what her daughter had done.
“I never brought them up to be this way, but the situation, the soldiers, provokes them,” Malki says. “I spend my life making prison visits to my children. Maybe the Israelis hope it will change them, but I think it only makes them harder.”