Since Haifa Jawat Amasi married her husband in 1986, she figures he has been picked up and imprisoned by Israeli security officers at least 15 times, usually for four to six months. He has never been charged with a crime, she said, nor has he ever been accused of participating in any violence.
But her husband, Ismail Mohammed Amasi, 41, is a senior political officer in the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a militant group that, during the 34-month Palestinian uprising, has participated in 20 attacks in which 28 Israelis have been killed, according to Israeli, Palestinian and media accounts.
On June 24, 2002, Israeli soldiers went to the family's house and detained Amasi. He was not charged with a crime, nor was he allowed to see any of the evidence against him. In a secret proceeding, a military judge ruled that, under Israeli law, Amasi was a security risk to Israel and ordered him held in a process known as "administrative detention" for the maximum period of six months.
The detention has been extended twice, for six months each time, and comes up for review again on Dec. 24. Israeli officials said they could not answer specific questions about the case, but they confirmed that Amasi had been in detention since June.
"He's always been imprisoned or detained administratively," without being charged and without a trial, said his wife. "They are all political accusations. He's a PFLP official, and they say he's dangerous to the security of Israel when he's outside of prison."
Amasi is one of the thousands of Palestinians being held in Israeli jails who have become a central stumbling block in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian officials maintain that virtually all of the people being held -- their numbers range from about 5,900 to 7,500, depending on who is counted and who does the counting -- are political prisoners who should be freed, even those charged with murder. Israeli officials say that many are terrorists who present a security risk or who have "blood on their hands," meaning those who have been involved in a violent attack.
The Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Hisham Abdel-Razek, has rejected the "blood on their hands" standard, saying in a state of war, even Palestinians locked up for violent crimes should be released because "they did what they did in the framework of the conflict and our people's resistance of the occupation. Whoever they view as a murderer is viewed by the Palestinian people as a hero, and vice-versa."
But a senior Israeli military attorney said that in any type of conflict, "a person who intentionally targets civilians is a war criminal. International law in no way condones the intentional targeting of noncombatants. No one gets a reprieve for that. That's why we feel very comfortable that people who are terrorists -- we don't release them very easily."
The prisoners have become an issue as both sides wrangle over a U.S.-backed peace initiative called the "road map." The initiative -- drafted by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- does not specifically address the prisoners, but their release has been demanded by the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as a confidence-building gesture from Israel. More importantly, Palestinian militant groups have demanded a mass release of prisoners in return for the three-month cease-fire they declared on June 29.
So far, according to Palestinian officials, Israel has released one batch of 135 prisoners -- on the day before the June 4 summit meeting in Jordan among Abbas, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israeli officials say they have released 250 Palestinian prisoners. The discrepancy between the two figures could not immediately be reconciled.
Three weeks ago, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of 400 more prisoners, but none was set free, Israeli and Palestinian officials agree. On Sunday, the cabinet revisited the issue and decided to release a total of 540 prisoners, including about 210 from the radical group Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas. It was unclear when the group would be freed. About 120 of the prisoners slated for release are common criminals who are being included just to boost the total, Palestinian officials charge.
Palestinians say the releases, assuming they happen, are inadequate. According to statistics compiled by Abdel-Razek's office, more than 4,400 of the Palestinians being held by Israel have not been put on trial, including more than 700 being held, like Amasi, in administrative detention. Furthermore, Palestinians officials say, only 330 Palestinians being held have been convicted of violent crimes.
Of 2,668 Palestinians currently in the custody of the Israel Prisons Service, 1,715 were incarcerated for violent crimes, including 589 on charges of killing Israelis, a prisons service spokeswoman said. She was unable to provide statistics on how many had been convicted and how many were awaiting trial.
Israeli government and military officials acknowledge the importance of releasing Palestinian prisoners to nurture the peace process and boost the standing of Abbas and his three-month-old, appointed government. But Israeli officials say they will not approve a wholesale release, arguing that doing so would reverse the results of more than two years of capturing Palestinian militants and terrorists, which they say has improved Israel's security.
About 820 Israelis and 2,140 Palestinians have been killed since the Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in September 2000. Pointing out that the Israeli casualties include many civilians who were killed in suicide bombings, the Israeli government has argued that the conflict is a fight against terrorism that requires tough security measures.
Administrative detention is one. It allows Israeli military judges to detain a person for up to six months, with an unlimited number of extensions, if there are "reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention," according to excerpts of the law translated by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem.
According to a report by the group, Israeli authorities "use administrative detention as a quick and efficient alternative to criminal trial, primarily when they do not have sufficient evidence to charge the individual, or when they do not want to reveal their evidence."
The senior Israeli military attorney said that administrative detention -- which has been used to hold Israelis as well as Palestinians -- is an effort to strike "a very difficult balance between human rights and military necessity." The problem, he said, was that few Palestinians ever agree to testify against another Palestinian, and "in many cases there's no public evidence, but we do have secret evidence" based on witness or intelligence sources that cannot be revealed.
In the course of an investigation, he said, the Israelis hope that public evidence comes to light, but if it doesn't, the next best option is to take the suspect into administrative detention.
"We prefer a public trial. It looks better and it is better," he said. "Administrative detention is a very bad compromise."
The case of Asma Abu Heija is the sort that stirs passions on both sides and illustrates the difficulty of trying to satisfy Israel's security concerns and Palestinian demands for transparency and fairness.
Asma's husband, Jamal Abu Heija, is a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank town of Jenin, about 45 miles north of Jerusalem. He was arrested 11 months ago.
Israeli security officials said Jamal Abu Heija was the head of the military wing of Hamas in Jenin and was behind an Aug. 4, 2002, suicide bombing of a bus in northern Israel that killed nine people. Security officials say he was also a mastermind of the August 2001 Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem, in which 15 Israelis were killed.
But Jamal Abu Heija has not been charged or brought to trial, according to his family, who assert that he is a political leader of Hamas. They say Israeli prosecutors have neither evidence nor witnesses who can testify against him. Israeli officials would not say whether he has been charged or why he is being held.
On Feb. 11, Jamal Abu Heija's family said, Israeli security forces detained his wife. The family says that the Israelis continue to hold her without charges as an administrative detainee to pressure her husband to talk. Five of their children between ages 7 and 18 have been left at home under the revolving-door care of various relatives.
"They arrested the wife just to exert pressure on the father," said Khaled Ghanem, 22, one of the relatives who helps care for the children. But releasing her would not create goodwill toward Israel or help the fledgling peace process, he said. "No matter what I tell these children, their experiences will stay with them," he said. "Even if I wanted to talk to them about peace, how could I dare to?"
Israeli officials denied the family's accusations. A senior security source said the wife was arrested based on evidence that she was involved in "accepting and passing" terrorist money and knowingly using a bank account in her name for terrorist funds.
Staff researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.