Avi Issacharoff
October 14, 2008 - 8:00pm

"For five years, I was a wanted man, but we had enough," says Sufian Qandil of the Tigers, an organization associated with Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. It's noon, and Qandil woke up only a few minutes ago in the prison cell where according to an agreement with Israel he must now spend his nights. "We keep our agreements, even those signed with the Jews," he says, placing his hand on his pillow with a Mickey Mouse pillowcase.

The Al-Aqsa brigades were dissolved. Some members joined the security forces of the Palestinian Authority after receiving amnesty from Israel, while others are being held in PA prisons. A rare look inside Junaid Prison reveals a new era in relations between Israel and Fatah activists. They were involved in dozens of terror attacks, but now they say the era of war is over. They want normal lives. There is another expression of the winds of change blowing through Israel-PA relations: The PA arrests men wanted by Israel on request.

Take Mahdi Abu Ghazale, 35, once considered the commander of the Night Riders, a rival to the Tigers. Like Qandil, Abu Ghazale received partial amnesty from Israel, with the same conditions. About a year ago, he met with a group from Haaretz in a safe house in the casbah of Nablus. He described his daily routine, and mentioned that he was still single. A few days ago he became engaged to a local woman. His fiancee's family made full amnesty from Israel a precondition for the marriage. Abu Ghazale, who fought against Israel for years, now finds himself having to prove his renunciation of terror in order to get married. "I'm being tested not only vis-a-vis Israel but also vis-a-vis my future wife," he explains.

The guard at the gate is unaccustomed to visitors to the prison, especially Israeli ones, and lets us in only after consulting with a superior. The prison was once used by Israeli security forces, and Ghassan, our escort, recalls being detained here by the Shin Bet security service. In addition to the Fatah detainees, divided into full-time wards and those who return to sleep here each night, are 54 Hamas members awaiting trial. The conditions they are held in are much worse. Abu Nidal, a PA military intelligence official who is in charge of the cellblocks, says that just a few days ago the partial-amnesty recipients signed their agreement with Israel renouncing arms and all anti-Israel activities. For three months they will be prohibited from leaving Nablus and from contact with other wanted men. "Their current status is 'not on the wanted list,'" Abu Nidal says.

The partially amnestied spend their nights mainly watching television. Abu Ghazale says they've already handed in their weapons and are no longer involved in terrorism. "There are no games, the situation has changed. We're no longer waiting only for amnesty, but rather for a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal. This group has met all the conditions placed on it. At night [we] are in prison and during the day all we do is see our families."

Night rider Omar Aqub has one leg in a cast, due to a motorcycle accident and not from his days of fighting the Israel Defense Forces. "The military activities are over, enough of that. We want a normal life, not trouble," Aqub says. He also expresses a desire to join one of the PA's security forces. "Either that or I'll go back to being an automotive mechanic," he says.

Qandil, the ex-Tiger, was nearly killed by the IDF last year. On October 10, 2007 an IDF force operating in the Nablus casbah fired at him and fellow Tiger Omar al-Inbusi. Inbusi was killed, Qandil was badly wounded in the leg and abdomen but nevertheless managed to escape. He has been incarcerated at Junaid for nearly 10 months, as a result of Israeli pressure on the PA. He escaped twice, but returned of his own free will.

The great escape

One of the escapes was in January, and it lasted a few hours. "I said I was going to the canteen and simply kept walking," Qandil says. "About three hours later I returned because the Israelis started operating in the city and I was afraid they'd hurt me."

Three months later, the whole group escaped, after a tussle with the guards. "We broke the exit door, which wasn't particularly reinforced," Abu Ghazale related. "You have to understand, our conditions were very tough then. We couldn't leave our cells even to go into the corridor and there was no progress in our talks with Israel regarding our situation. So we took advantage of the fact that the guards were putting down another confrontation in the next wing and approached the gate. Punches were thrown, the guards there fired into the air. We returned after receiving assurances that our conditions would be improved," Abu Ghazale said.

The Tigers and Night Riders sit in a cell and smile as they reminisce about the joint escape. In the past the two groups fought for control of the casbah, but now they're all good friends. "Once there were battles between our groups," Qandil recalls. During the first intifada, if the member of one group entered the other group's territory, even by mistake, his fate would be like that of an IDF soldier.

Abu Nidal says that various measures have since been taken to prevent future escapes. The door the prisoners broke is now bricked in, an additional fence was installed and the number of perimeter patrols has been doubled.

In Cellblock Four, the last of the Al-Aqsa brigades' men wanted by Israel, 13 in all, are being held in full-time detention. Ghanan Subuh, who has been imprisoned since April, says he received amnesty from Israel in November 2007 but four months later IDF soldiers went to his house to arrest him. He found refuge at Junaid. "During the day we can go into the prison yard, but at 8 P.M. the wing is locked up for the night. Family visits are permitted once a week," Subuh explains.

Mohammed Mansour, Mohammed Milhim and Saeb Mahmoud, all in their early twenties, have been cellmates for nine months. "It's a prison for all intents and purposes," one says. "Relations with the guards are good but at the end of the day it's still prison. There's television, bathrooms, even two cell phones in every cellblock." Qa'id al-Misri, 15, the youngest of the 13, makes coffee. He was also arrested on Israel's request. He has been here for 40 days, apparently on suspicion of aiding wanted activists.

Most of the men say Palestinian prison is preferable to Israeli prison. "Maybe the conditions in Israeli prisons are better, but here I'm with people from my own city," Subuh says. "The relations with the guards and the wardens is better." The 13 wanted men expect to receive partial, if not full, amnesty from Israel.

Abulafia ambitions

A few isolated members of the Al-Aqsa brigades continue their anti-Israel activities. Qandil, whose name was once known to every Shin Bet coordinator and every officer in the IDF special forces, says he is already dreaming of the moment he'll receive amnesty from the Shin Bet. "As soon as I can, I want to travel to Israel. I'll visit Jaffa. I have a lot of cousins on my mother's side who live there. They live really close to the Abulafia Bakery," Qandil says, referring to the legendary Arab bakery on Yefet Street that every Israeli from the center of the country, and most from beyond, knows for its fresh specialty pitas.


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