Ahmad Abdel Samara came home today after 15 years in prison, part of a deal between Israel and the Palestinians that sent joy through this forlorn hilltop village.
The release of Samara and 198 others held for terrorist activity or other actions against Israel was the first concrete result of the renewed peace accord signed last Saturday at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, after intervention by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. It was intended to show that after nearly a year of stalemate, Israel's new government is serious about its promises to reengage in negotiations for a lasting peace here and in the rest of the Middle East.
As the car carrying Samara drove slowly through this village nine miles west of Jerusalem, his neighbors stood cheering along the dirt roads among cactus plants and dusty olive trees. The women of his extended family formed up in front of his home and began chanting an emotional, embracing greeting.
On seeing his family, Samara was overcome and almost fell from the car. He knelt down on his land and kissed it, then hugged each of the 30 or so people in his yard. First the adult males, then the women in scarves and long dresses embroidered with red and gold.
Samara was jailed for taking up arms against Israel, which has occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war. Today, he said, "I now believe there are other ways to fight. I want to participate in a democratic struggle against the occupier."
Samara's neighbors said that when he was arrested 15 years ago, this village was fully armed and eager to fight. Now, a nephew, Jihad Samara, 25, said: "It is time for politics, not weapons. I believe that you can't affect anything doing what he did."
The prisoner release program, put back on track at Sharm el Sheikh, was part of a U.S.-brokered deal reached at the Wye River Plantation near Washington last October--itself a renewal of earlier such accords that also included pledges of a phased Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. But the prime minister at the time, Binyamin Netanyahu, froze implementation of the agreement a month later, complaining that the Palestinian leadership had failed to carry out pledges to crack down on anti-Israeli terrorist groups.
The new version of the accord--modified yet again at the insistence of Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, after his election in May--provided for release of 350 prisoners and withdrawal from an additional 11 percent of the West Bank. Over the next few days, Israel is to hand over civilian administration of about 140 square miles of West Bank land, while retaining military control, as a first step in the withdrawals.
Israeli officials said they carefully chose the prisoners they released today, making sure that none had killed Israelis or was still committed to violence. Most of those freed were jailed in connection with the killing of Palestinian collaborators or the wounding of Israelis, the officials said.
Negotiations last week were stalemated for a time on the number of prisoners to be released. Israeli officials said only 350 met their criteria, while Palestinian negotiators insisted on 400. Ultimately, Palestinians agreed on the lower figure after U.S. officials pressed them and Israel offered further releases at a later date, according to U.S. officials involved in the discussions.
A second group of 150 prisoners is due to be released Oct. 8. Although 200 were to be released today, one prisoner refused to leave, saying his sentence had only a few days to run and thus his release now would be meaningless.
Letting Palestinians whom Israelis consider terrorists go home--possibly to rejoin terrorist organizations--is seen as a foolish risk by some Israelis. That fear was enhanced when two explosive-filled cars blew up in northern Israeli cities--apparently prematurely--just hours after the deal on the prisoner release was signed. And citing security concerns, Israel today closed off crossings into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing most Palestinians from entering Israel until the end of the Jewish New Year holiday Monday.
But many Israelis would find that when it comes to sacrificing what were once inviolable principles to the pursuit of peace, their views are very much like those of the villagers who greeted Ahmad Abdel Samara today. The speaker of the Israeli parliament, Avraham Burg, said that after years of fighting with the Palestinians the Israeli public is willing to take the risk of releasing prisoners and giving up land.
"Surrendering land for peace no longer violates the sacred principle of keeping all of biblical Israel for the Jews," he said. "We have decided we can do it. Now it is a matter of the price, and on price we can negotiate."
On Wednesday, when Barak presented the legislature with the deal to release prisoners and give up land, there was noisy but ineffective opposition. As speakers condemned the plan, all but a handful of members left for the coffee shop or a televised soccer game. In the corridors, a small group of people who have lost family members to terrorist attacks sought, mostly without success, to find someone to listen to their pleas to keep the prisoners locked up.
They were able to corner Minister of Industry and Trade Ran Cohen for a brief while, but he told them that Israel has found it possible to trust Arab leaders and make peace with them. "We have to do it," he said. "The only way to stop them from murdering us is to stop the conflict with them."