As Palestinian prisoner releases debated, a former inmate turned Hebrew teacher reflects


Esmat Mansour, who was released after 20 years in an Israeli jail, teaches Hebrew to students in Taybeh, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Esmat Mansour, convicted as an accomplice to murder, was one of the first Palestinian prisoners released last year to keep peace talks with the Israelis going. Now he teaches Hebrew — a language he learned during more than two decades behind bars — to Palestinian children.

The U.S.-brokered talks that led to his release are now in danger of collapse, and at the center of the impasse is what to do about other prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has balked at releasing a final batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners unless the Palestinians agreed to continue talks past the April 29 end date.

The issue is an emotional one here. Israelis see the prisoners as terrorists with blood on their hands and wonder why they must be freed to keep peace talks alive. For the Palestinians, the prisoners are freedom fighters and heroes of the resistance against Israeli occupation.

On a recent day, in the schoolyard of the Greek Orthodox high school in this Palestinian village near Ramallah, where he is now the Hebrew language instructor, Mansour was greeted like a celebrity. Teachers and students rushed to say hello. His teenage pupils said they love learning Hebrew with him, even though it’s the language of their perceived oppressors.

Mansour, 37, was one of the longest-serving Palestinian security prisoners, jailed by Israel for more than 20 years for his part in the murder of Haim Mizrachi, an Israeli from the Jewish settlement of Beit El.

Mansour was 16 when he helped three older teenagers ambush Mizrachi, whom they planned to kidnap. When Mizrachi resisted, the other conspirators, Mansour said, stabbed their victim to death. They later tried to burn his body to hide the evidence.

Mansour said that he does not regret his role in the violence of the past, but said he would never take another life now.

“I understand the pain and sadness of the [Israeli] victims because they have lost loved ones and nothing in the world can repair that. But I do not understand why their anger is directed at the prisoners,” said Mansour, who said he is well aware that Israelis see him as a terrorist.

“I think they need to look at the real reasons why their loved ones died and not take it personally,” he said. “It’s a result of the conflict.”

But that is not a common view in Israel, where key figures in the ruling coalition have threatened to quit the government if more prisoners are released.

“I will not sit in a government that releases terrorists in exchange for nothing,” said Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who has threatened to resign if even one more Palestinian prisoner is set free. Danon is one of the leaders of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Many Palestinians and prisoners’ advocates argue that longtime former detainees typically focus on rebuilding their lives, marrying and settling down — not on fighting.

Israeli security agencies dispute that, saying that about 50 percent return to terrorist activity, while research by Almagor, an Israeli association for victims of terrorism, has found that about 80 percent of Palestinian prisoners released by Israel over the years did so.

In April 2012, for example, two Palestinian prisoners who were among 1,027 released in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit were rearrested by Israel’s internal security agency — one for allegedly recruiting Palestinians in the West Bank to kidnap Israelis, the other for smuggling weapons.

“The problem is that they all become symbols of the resistance,” said Meir Indor of Almagor. “They become heroes in their society, their crimes are celebrated. The system does not let them get away from that.”

A senior Israeli military intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security protocols, said that long-serving Palestinian prisoners who return to the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory controlled by the Islamist movement Hamas, are more likely to support violence. The prisoners who come home to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian leaders have renounced violence as a tactic, usually do not.

As a condition of their release, former prisoners returning to the West Bank must remain within their municipality for a year, check in with the Israeli army every two months and stay inside the West Bank for ten years.

Mansour, like all the 78 prisoners released in this round of peace talks, was given $50,000 upon release and a monthly salary of $1,725 by the Palestinian Authority.

He said Israelis should stop seeing him as a threat but instead as someone who might be able to make a difference in his society . He learned to speak, read and write Hebrew fluently during his 20 years in prison.

“When we were in prison we became curious about Israeli life and society, we learned Hebrew and we watched Israeli TV,” said Mansour, adding that his years behind bars in Israel helped him better understand the people he once hated enough to kill.

“I don’t feel like my time was wasted. It’s true that it was hard, sometimes violent and that I lost a big part of my life, but I have those experiences now and maybe I can use them to do something that other people can’t do,” he said.

Since his release in August, Mansour said he has taught young Palestinians about their neighbors and helped them learn Hebrew so they can better communicate with the Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and other places across the West Bank.

Mansour said that he makes a great effort to play down his status as a hero to his students, who are now the same age he was when he was first jailed.

“I try to teach them never to use violence,” said Mansour, who wrote three novels while in prison, all featuring uneasy heroes who had to battle their personal demons and weaknesses to survive.

“I don’t feel like a hero because of what I did. Honestly, anyone can kill a person; that is easy. But I do see myself as a hero because I came out of this experience still strong,” he said. “I wrote, studied and managed to deal with the harsh conditions in prison, I left and I still have my sanity.”

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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