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Remaking a life, after years in an Israeli prison




BURQA, West Bank » Muqdad Salah is a man in a hurry.

He inhales food, and bristles at lateness. His wife, Kefaya, said he expected her to make rooms immaculate immediately, "like a magician." They married in November, and he is already pressing her to start fertility treatments.

"I want a son – or a daughter – I want someone to inherit me," said Salah, 47, one of 78 long-serving Palestinian prisoners freed from Israeli jails as part of the U.S.-brokered peace talks that started last summer.

"Many times I dreamed of it in prison: I saw this house and the children, playing with toys," he added. "I dream more now. I don’t want 10 – two is enough for me. I want to give all my energy to them."

It has been seven months since Salah was welcomed before dawn by a cacophonous crowd in this village of 4,000 near the Palestinian financial hub of Nablus. It has been two decades since he killed Israel Tenenbaum, 72, a Holocaust survivor and security guard at a beach hotel 20 miles away in Netanya, hitting him on the side of the head with a metal rod.

For Tenenbaum’s daughter, Esti Harris, the release has only revived years of agonizing over whether her father suffered.

"Did he see a person hovering over him?" she asked. "Was he in pain for that split second? Every night I would think about it before falling asleep, about that man above my father."

Demonized as terrorists by Israelis and lionized as freedom fighters by Palestinians, prisoners like Salah have become a flash point in the troubled peace talks, whose continuation hinges on whether a promised fourth group is let go in the coming days. Amid the charged debate, these middle-aged men – 69 of them convicted of murder, 54 escaping life sentences – have begun to rebuild disrupted lives. They are earning their first driver’s licenses, leveraging $50,000 grants from the Palestinian Authority to build apartments or start businesses, searching for wives and struggling to start families.

Salah was flush with more than $100,000 saved from the Palestinian Authority’s monthly payments to prisoners’ families. He remodeled and refurnished his mother’s home. He bulldozed the rocky slope out back and built a 2,400-square-foot pen for livestock. He invested in a Nablus money-changing storefront in December, and, last month, bought his first car, a silver 2007 Kia Pride.

But he still wakes at 5 a.m., as he had to for the prison count. He makes coffee in an electric kettle like the one he had in his cell. The day before his wedding, Salah and one of his brothers got threatening phone calls from a man who gave his name as Moshe and spoke in Hebrew.

"He told me, ‘I will kill him, kill his wife, and shoot you and all his family,’" said the brother, Muhammad. "He told me, ‘I know where you live, in Burqa, and Burqa is next to Sebastia.’"

The morning of his release, Salah had run past the house to smell a favored carob tree, and then he climbed atop a sheep shed to survey the changed village.

His brothers soon set about finding him a bride.

He had coffee with the daughter of an old friend, but saw that she was scared. Then he met Kefaya Abu Omar, who was 30 and whose engagement had gone bad.

"I told her my brother lived for a long time in prison – if you accept him, you have to understand him," Muhammad Salah recalled. "He sleeps a lot, he is not social with people. I asked her to help him get out of this."

At his pre-wedding celebration in the village square, the groom stood on stage looking stunned, gifts of cash pinned all over his shirt, as hundreds of men and boys danced and shouted slogans of liberation.

The next day, the couple – nearly strangers, nearly a generation apart – used a large steel sword to cut a cake exploding with fireworks.

Salah, like the other released prisoners, had to check in with Israeli security officials, first every two weeks, now every two months. Most mornings, he heads to Nablus to escape the village gossip. He drives unsteadily, mixing up the gas and brake. He kills time at the money-changing shop, or sipping coffee with public officials.

He is not allowed beyond Burqa and Nablus for a year, or to leave the West Bank for 10 years.

"I’m getting bored," he said, sitting in his salon under a framed portrait of himself in a quasi-military uniform bearing the honorary rank of brigadier general. "I want to travel. I want to see people. I want to breathe the air, I want to walk."

The 78 released prisoners have complained to the Palestinian Authority that the $50,000 grants and monthly payments – Salah gets about $1,800 – are not enough to buy apartments.

Their health insurance covers in vitro fertilization, which Salah plans to pursue, but not dental. Lately, Salah, who smokes two packs of Marlboro Lights daily, has been having chest pains.

Only one prisoner has been rearrested, for failure to pay property taxes, a matter that was quickly resolved. Few attended re-entry workshops at the prisoners’ ministry.

"We receive them as national heroes, we give them awards and medals, and then we leave them to face their problems alone," said Munqeth Abu Atwan, who works at the ministry. "Can you tell a hero that you need a psychiatrist, you need to participate in a rehabilitation program?"

Salah, the third of six siblings, was better off than most: he had inherited land and had his prisoner’s payments.

He considered buying a taxi, but deemed it difficult to find a trustworthy driver. He thought of opening a plastics factory, or a bakery, but worried about chemicals and cockroaches. So he put some $70,000 into the money-changing business which, he said, yielded $1,700 profit in February. The pen he built out back was intended for hens, but now he is thinking sheep may be simpler.

"When I left prison, I thought to myself, I have lost 20 years of my life, and to live on a salary is not a good idea," he explained. "My sons, if I have sons, will live in poverty. I want their life to be better than mine."

Hearing about Salah’s new life was unsettling for Harris, who is 56 and works as a special-education teacher.

"If he was an anonymous character, it would be easier," she said.

But while most Israelis – and certainly most victims’ relatives – oppose the prisoner releases, Harris said of her family, "If it advances the peace process, we all support even the release of this murderer."

Monday evening in Netanya, about 80 relatives of people who died in Palestinian attacks chanted, "We will not forget and we will not forgive" as they marched from Hasharon Mall, which was bombed three times, past Cafi London, where blood-spattered plates were left after a 2003 explosion, to the Park Hotel, site of the 2002 Passover massacre that killed 29.

They did not go to the former Hotel Sironit, where Salah killed Tenenbaum in 1993.

Born in Poland in 1921, Tenenbaum came to Israel in 1957. His twin sister died jumping from a window in the Warsaw Ghetto; his family does not know how he survived the war. He settled in the farming village of Ein Vered, eventually opening a vegetable store, and working nights at the hotel.

He brought Yiddish actors to the community center. A grandson, Alon Harris, now 29, remembers him chain-smoking on the porch, listening to soccer games on a transistor radio. His wife, Mina, now 86, savors a snapshot of them dancing the tango.

Israeli court records show Tenenbaum was found about 7:30 a.m. June 14, 1993, lying on his back in a bed near the hotel bar, a pillow covering his bloodied face. According to the 29-page verdict convicting him of murder, Salah told investigators that he and another man had gone to Netanya in search of a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with Israel, and happened upon the guard.

The other man said, "Let’s kill him so that we did not make the trip for nothing," the verdict quotes Salah having said. "Only when we saw the guard sleeping did we decide to kill him as a protest against the occupation."

Salah now tells a different story. He said a previous run-in with Tenenbaum at the hotel led to an 18-day jail stay for being in Israel illegally. (Salah was barred because of two arrests, as a teenager, for throwing stones during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising.) When he returned to the Sironit that night, Salah said, the guard confronted him, so he broke the metal stand off a lamp and struck him on the left ear.

He had no explanation for why the guard was found in a bloodstained bed.

"I wasn’t planning it," said Salah, whose life sentence was later reduced to 32 years. "I didn’t intend to kill him." Asked if he regretted it, Salah said, "Of course."

Harris, who lives next to her parents’ home in Ein Vered, did not attend Salah’s trial, and even now does not know his name.

"I don’t believe hate and anger will move anything forward," she said. "I was ready, maybe, to sit opposite him at this table, for him to convince me that he supports peace."

Salah, who studied political science in prison, criticized Fatah, the party he joined at 16, as "fragmented," and the Palestinian Authority for having "no strategy."

Palestinians "have to admit that our revolution has failed," he said, advocating civil disobedience, "not the use of guns and tanks."

"I’m away from the conflict now," he said. "I’ve paid the tax in full. If tomorrow there is a third intifada, I’ll sit on this couch, and watch it on TV."

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