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Palestinian parliament to meet; some legislators behind bars
Knight Ridder Newspapers
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Imagine 54 U.S. congressmen holding office from behind bars, and you get an idea of the problem facing the Palestinian parliament when it meets today for its first session since the January landslide victory of the radical, anti-Israel group Hamas.
About 10 percent of the 132 newly elected Palestinian legislators are inmates of Israel's civilian and military jails. Some of the legislators are being held in administrative detention without charges; others are serving time after conviction in Israeli courts.
How, if at all, these prisoner-politicians can participate in government and join debates on proposed legislation is a serious question.
"They won't get any special privileges just because they were elected," said Israeli Prison Service spokesman Ofer Lefler. At best, he said, they might be able to pass information to the outside world through monthly family visits or visits with lawyers, which can occur more frequently.
"In our jails they haven't got cellphones — I hope. And they haven't got permission to call," Lefler said. "They are prisoners. That's the whole story."
While Palestinian legislators confined to the Gaza Strip under Israeli travel restrictions are expected to participate via closed-circuit video link with their colleagues meeting in Ramallah, no such provision exists for the 13 legislators in Israeli custody. (One legislator is in a Palestinian jail as well as under international supervision.)
Ten of the 14 are members of Hamas, whose effective majority drops from 74 to 64 seats while they are incarcerated. Three are members of Fatah, including the head of the party's electoral list, Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences for his role in five attacks that killed civilians. Still, he is often mentioned by Palestinian and Israeli analysts — a la Nelson Mandela — as a possible future Palestinian leader.
One inmate, Ahmed Sadaat, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is in a Palestinian jail in Jericho for his role in the 2002 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
For Israel, giving these prisoners more privileges to communicate is out of the question for now, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
"We said from the beginning, even before Hamas was elected, that no one has immunity. If you want to say you are a politician, act like a politician, don't be involved in terrorist activities," Regev said. "If we give a telephone in response to good behavior, a prisoner could use that prison privilege for bad purposes."
"The issue of the prisoners is our highest priority," she said, pledging to try to free them. "People voted for them because they respected their resistance."
Legislators to the Palestinians, law breakers in Israeli eyes, these parliamentarians behind bars are also potential bargaining chips who could one day be released as part of a negotiated return to bilateral peace talks.
The prospect of their release could provide political leverage as Israel and parts of the international community put pressure on Hamas to renounce violence, uphold existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and recognize Israel's right to exist.
For now, with neither side budging on its core demands, however, the doors to their prison cells will stay shut.
Meanwhile, Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his senior advisers neared agreement Friday on a series of steps that would effectively isolate the Gaza Strip and deprive the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority of money once the radical Islamic group forms a Cabinet, according to Foreign Ministry officials.
Olmert's security Cabinet did not make a decision on how to proceed after today. The decision was postponed to give Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose fractured Fatah party will soon be a minority, the opportunity to address the incoming parliament without new Israeli policies as a backdrop.
"We don't want to pre-empt anything," said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We want to see what the Palestinians are going to do Saturday — what is said and what is done."
Also Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will ask Arab allies to demand that an incoming Hamas-led government abandon terrorism and accept Israel, during her trip to the region next week.
The State Department, meanwhile, announced Friday that the U.S. had asked the Palestinian Authority to return $50 million in direct assistance provided in 2005 for new infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in August.
Information from The Washington Post and Bloomberg News is included in this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company