Page last updated at 10:25 GMT, Monday, 25 August 2008 11:25 UK

Emotional toll of prisoners issue

As Israel releases nearly 200 Palestinian prisoners, the BBC's Heather Sharp in Jerusalem looks at some of the personal stories behind prisoner swaps and releases involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority and militant groups.

Muhammad Abu Al 9Abu Ali Yatta) - prisoner due for release by Israel
Abu Ali Yatta is one of few with "blood on their hands" to be released

For Um Ali, Monday's release will end 28 years as a single parent.

She was seven months pregnant with her third child when her husband, Muhammad Abu Ali, was jailed for killing an Israeli reservist in the West Bank town of Hebron.

He is among 199 prisoners due to be released by Israel, as a goodwill gesture.

Unusually for a unilateral release, this time Israel is freeing two prisoners with Israeli "blood on their hands", something which has been largely limited to exchange deals for the return of Israelis - alive or dead - held by militant groups.

The whole area is a deeply emotive one, particularly for Israelis when it involves the release of killers, and for Palestinians because with at least 8,500 of them held in Israeli prisons, it touches large numbers of families across the West Bank and Gaza.

Speaking from her village near Hebron, Um Ali said she barely dared believe the news of the impending release of her husband, known as Abu Ali Yatta, in case, as on previous occasions, her hopes were dashed.

"I can't tell what I will do... I will hug him, kiss him, I can't wait for the moment when I have him next to me, talking to me, eating with me," she said.

'Re-opening the wounds'

But, as Meir Indor, of the Almagor victims' support group says, for Israelis who have lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks, such reunions are hard to stomach.

"You see them sitting watching the news with wide eyes. There is a feeling that not only did he succeed in killing - now he is going to continue with his life, to build his family."

The organisation is strongly opposed to all prisoner releases, and says 180 Israelis have been killed since 2000 by prisoners who have been freed under such deals.

Palestinian woman at rally for prisoners (16 August 2008)
According to official Israeli figures obtained by human rights group B'tselem, there are about 8,500 Palestinians from the West bank and Gaza in Israeli jails:

Serving sentence: 5,137
Detainees: 270
Detained until end of legal process: 2,352
Administrative detainees [detained without trial]: 730
Figures include:
Aged 16-18: 282
Aged under 16: 34

The Palestinian Authority says 11,000 Palestinians in total are behind bars in Israel

But victims do not always oppose the freeing of those who killed family members.

In June, Smadar Haran decided not to protest against the release of Samir Qantar, who in 1979 killed her husband, her four-year-old daughter and a policeman.

Mrs Haran accidentally suffocated her other daughter, aged two, trying to silence her as they hid from the attackers.

As part of a deal for Qantar's release, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers captured in the incident that sparked the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

It was not certain until the day of the swap that the soldiers were dead.

Mrs Haran was able to see the exchange taking place in the distance on the Lebanese border as she laid flowers on the northern Israeli beach where, according to eyewitnesses and the court verdict, Qantar shot her husband in front of her daughter, and went on to smash in the little girl's head.

"It was very difficult, and so were the days afterwards. It re-opened the wounds. I was mourning again - just like it was in the beginning," she said.

Media debate

Her decision too, was hard. But she said she realised Qantar, who she described at the time as an "abhorred murderer", "was not my personal prisoner" and such decisions should be taken by the Israeli government.

In a society where most people's children serve in the military, Mrs Haran shares the deep, widely held commitment to doing what is necessary to bringing Israeli soldiers home:

Karnit Goldwasser, wife of Ehud Goldwasser, Israeli soldier whose remains were returned during July 2008 prisoner exchange
Karnit Goldwasser: "It's not a deal, it's a person"

"My pain is terrible and big, but there are other families who suffer, and I can't close my eyes or my heart to their feelings."

The wife of one of the soldiers, Karnit Goldwasser, was aware too of the emotional cost of the exchange, even as she mounted a campaign to bring her husband and his colleague home.

"It was tough. They [the Haran family] are from my home town. I know everything," she said.

And although she ultimately achieved her aims, the result was heartbreaking.

"The worst thing was to work for two years and to end every day alone - and then to get him back, but not alive."

Like Mrs Haran, she also faced the media spotlight, and debate over the price Israel had paid.

"It's talked about like it's a deal, but it's not a deal, it's a person," she said.

'Waiting on red coals'

This week's release is a different case, with nothing in exchange. Israel says the aim is to boost the standing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

According to the head of Shin Bet security service, quoted by Haaretz newspaper, the move also seeks to pressure the militant group Hamas towards a deal for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, snatched from the Gaza border more than two years ago.

The Shalit family are not the only ones anxiously following the negotiations for his release.

Smadar Haran
Mrs Haran said she re-lived her mourning after the exchange

Nemer Mohammed Youssef al-Sharadha, now 28, was nine when his father was jailed for three life sentences plus an additional 30 years.

Speaking from his home in Gaza, he said the family was "waiting on red coals" because the father of four, Mohammad, is on a list of prisoners Hamas wants released as part of a deal for the return of Gilad Shalit.

Mohammad was sentenced for the deaths of two Israeli soldiers, during operations he took part in as a member of Hamas's military wing, Nemer said.

Although the organisation has long targeted civilians, he says his father never did.

"What my father has done is a normal reaction of any person in any occupied country," he said.

"After spending 20 years in Israeli jails, he deserves to be released."

In the eyes of many Palestinians, including Um Ali, there is an imbalance in the whole situation:

"Israel kills lots of Palestinians every day," she says. "Why do we have to be punished when they are not?"

This is a widespread feeling among Palestinians, and does reflect the Palestinian death toll during some periods in the conflict, though Palestinians have also killed many Israelis.

An Israeli human rights group estimates that approximately 4,850 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict since 2000. Over the same period, about 1060 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians.

Mother's feelings

As an occupying power, Israel carries out arrests during military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, and has a system of military and civilian courts in which to try and punish suspects.

In contrast, there is no effective channel of redress for the majority of Palestinians - both militants and civilians - killed and injured during Israeli military operations.

Cases of specific abuse by Israeli soldiers are tried in Israeli courts, but weighty punishments are rare and human rights groups often complain that censures are too rare and too light.

Initially, Um Ali said "not one hair on my head is moved" in empathy for the family of the soldier her husband killed, as he was part of an army that was "beating us and killing people".

But then, aware of the complexity of the issue, she adds: "As a mother, I wouldn't like to see my son killed, and as a mother, I would want the killer to be in jail."

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