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Palestinians freed in prisoner swap chafe under strict conditions

Israel makes no secret of arresting, deporting or killing those Palestinians who take up arms after their release under prisoner-swap deals.

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK // Aisha Obeiyat is struggling to adapt to being home in Bethlehem after two stints and eight years in Israeli prisons.

Freed during last month's Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap involving Sgt Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years, she still does not sleep securely at night.

On top of the conditions of her release barring her from leaving her native Bethlehem for three years, Ms Obeiyat, 25, fears her every move is monitored by Israel's network of Palestinian informants.

"I have to be much more cautious now. I'm afraid to speak freely," said Ms Obeiyat, whose father is a member of Hamas.

She was first arrested in 2002 for allegedly trying to stab an Israeli soldier in retaliation for Israel's killing of her brother and uncle. In 2009, months after serving out her originial sentence, she was arrested again for violating the travel restrictions imposed on her by Israel. Sentenced to three more years in jail, her term was cut short by last month's agreement.

To some, her worries may verge on paranoia. But history suggests her fears are not groundless.

Israel makes no secret of arresting, deporting or killing those Palestinians it says take up arms after their release under such deals. But Palestinians say many a freed prisoner has fallen victim to score-settling by Israel and its liberal use of extralegal military powers and secretive military tribunals.

Yesterday, Israeli soldiers ransacked the West Bank home of one of the prisoners released in the recent swap, Duaa Al Jayousi, who had been serving multiple life sentences. She was not arrested but the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported soldiers told her that she was "being watched".

"These people are flagged for monitoring by the Israelis when they are released, which means their release is not the end of the story," said Zakaria Al Qaq, a Palestinian expert on security issues, describing safe-conduct guarantees stipulated by Palestinian-Israeli prisoner swaps as "paper thin".

Jawad Amawy, the legal director at the Palestinian Authority's ministry of detainees and ex-detainees affairs, said that since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, about 70 Palestinians freed under such prisoner-release agreements have been rearrested for highly questionable reasons.

Most had been serving life sentences for murder and they were rearrested for violating what he called "broadly interpreted violations" of their conditions for release.

"The release conditions they are required to sign are usually so loosely worded that they effectively give Israel a pretext to arrest them again if they are seen as doing anything remotely suspicious," said Mr Amawy. These could be anything from conspicuously waving a Palestinian flag to minor traffic violations.

Some have been required to serve out both their previous sentences as well as that which led to their rearrest, he said.

"It's clearly an issue of revenge," he said.

Public pressure in Israel would seem to be pushing its leaders to carry out such reprisals.

The Shalit deal involved the two-phased release of 1,027 prisoners. Almost 300 had been serving one or consecutive life sentences for dozens of deadly attacks.

Avichai Rontski, the former head rabbi of Israel's army, the day of Mr Shalit's release went so far as to call on authorities to begin a general policy of executing - instead of arresting - Palestinian security suspects.

Bounties worth tens of thousand of dollars have been published on extremist settler websites for the head of at least one of the recently released prisoners.

One hundred and eighty-seven of those considered most dangerous by Israel were transferred to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip for three or more years while 41 were deported. Another 55 of those released into the West Bank must submit to rules that include travel restrictions and regular interrogations.

Back in Bethlehem, Ms Obeiyat was concerned about Israel coming to get her. She fears she has become a permanent suspect.

And that is why her father, Mohammed Obeiyat, makes sure she avoids unnecessary contact with strangers.

"We discuss things openly inside our home, but we are careful elsewhere," said Mr Obeiyat. "We don't want to give Israel another excuse to use against us."

Ms Obeiyat agreed with her father's logic, even if that meant living in what sometimes felt like an open-air prison.

"I can open my window and look outside. I can open my own door," she said. "But it's like I've become my own guard."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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