A snapshot of life inside the secret world of Israel's Palestinian prisons

They have murdered and run guns, but some are in jail illegally and their political organisation continues, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut
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The Independent Online
Some of them are smiling confidently, others stare hopelessly into the camera lens, men like 70-year-old Palestinian Mohamed Ahmed el- Nayerat, sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a Jewish settler and burying his body in concrete. He worked for the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine and has spent 30 years in Israel's prisons. His features seem dead, those of a man who knows he will never leave jail alive.

Some are younger, like 30-year-old Hizbollah member Ali Belhas, sentenced to life for attacking Israel's occupation forces inside southern Lebanon; he has spent just four years in the high security Ashkelon prison in central Israel, fitted out with a false leg to take the place of the one he lost when an Israeli helicopter pilot fired several bullets into his foot as he tried to rescue a wounded fellow guerrilla. He may smile jauntily for his relatives back home in the south Lebanese village of Siddiqin but he has carefully hidden his false left leg from the camera. More than 30 members of his family were slaughtered last year when Israel bombarded the United Nations base at Qana, in which they had sought protection.

The inmates' photographs - a rare look into the secret world of Israel's prisons - were sent to families in Jordan and Lebanon, along with letters carried by the International Red Cross. Israel forbids the men to be photographed in their regulation prison uniforms and prison walls must not appear in the snapshots. So the lifers of Ashkelon pose for their relatives in T- shirts and jeans, the walls behind them draped in flower-patterned carpets or sheets, looking for all the world - some of them - like guest workers or young men posing for pre-marriage snapshots. But the only marriage in Ashkelon is the men's allegiance to the militia groups of which they remain members, their "officers" still giving orders to Hizbollah men and members of Fatah and the PFLP within Israel's top security jail.

A few have fallen foul of their own comrades. Qasam Sulieman, a 26-year- old Palestinian sentenced to 20 years for trying to attack Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon, was brutally beaten by Fatah prisoners when his brother - one of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation officers in the Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon - abandoned Mr Arafat's cause for the Hizbollah's protection. Sulieman, who appears in his snapshot with a cigarette in his hand, has since moved to cells occupied by members of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement.

Belhas is not the only prisoner with a missing leg. Youssef Farouk Alladin, a 28-year-old Palestinian from Jordan, lost his foot after he was wounded by another machine-gun-firing Israeli helicopter. Spotted as he tried to sail down the Lebanese coast near the Israeli border, he landed his boat near the UN headquarters, taking several troops hostage. One of them died in the ensuing Israeli attack. Alladin was luckier; he lived to be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Ahmed Sami Ismail of the Lebanese Communist party has only 12 of his 20-year sentence to endure; he was captured as he tried to kidnap Israeli soldiers from southern Lebanon. Mustapha Hammoud - pictured like a Hizbollah "martyr" with a circle of yellow flowers around his head - has served nine years of a 25-year sentence for attacking Israeli occupation soldiers.

Nor are all these sentences legal under international law - which permits armed resistance to foreign occupation, a category into which most of the Hizbollah prisoners fall. The men captured in Lebanon were taken across the Israeli border to be sentenced before Israeli military courts, in violation of the Geneva conventions. Even inside their jail, they have gone on hunger strike for improvements in their conditions, including the right to have photographs taken of themselves after Israeli prison guards imposed a five-year ban on snapshots. The pictures of prisoners from Lebanon are paid for by the Red Cross - Palestinian inmates from the West Bank and Gaza must ask their families to pay - but more than photographs are being sent out of Ashkelon.

Jamal Mahroum, who spent 11 years in Israeli jails - including Ashkelon - for PLO gun-running in the West Bank, now helps to run an ex-prisoners committee in Lebanon. "We've just had a note from one of the men in Ashkelon that two Lebanese prisoners there are being used as spies by the Israelis," he says. "So I'm going to see their families in Lebanon this weekend. I'll tell them that relatives of prisoners are entitled to be paid by our organisation and then I'll gently let them know that their sons are working for the Israelis. If I find that the families have been allowed to visit their sons in Israel, we'll know for sure they are spies. But we think that if the parents can be persuaded to tell their sons to stop spying on the other prisoners, then the boys will stop. We can get the parents' message to Ashkelon." Stool-pigeons - the prisoners call them asfouraat (birds) in Arabic - are forgiven by fellow inmates if they publicly repent in front of their comrades.

Jamal Mahroum has reason to feel strongly about spies in the ranks. He was captured by Israeli undercover troops in 1983 after being betrayed by a Palestinian near Ramallah. Just a day before - while his car-load of guns was parked a few metres away - he had posed for a snapshot at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem along with an unsuspecting British tourist. Today, it has pride of place in his scrapbook, a gun-runner who does not even know the name of the woman standing beside him - who in turn has no idea that the man next to her, in this most holy of Jewish places, is moving weapons for the PLO.

Israel's new UN ambassador

As relations between Israel and the US turn sour, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has appointed Dore Gold, his foreign policy adviser, to be the Israeli ambassador to the UN in New York, a post he himself used to launch his political career, writes Patrick Cockburn.

Dr Gold, 43, is an assertive academic with an American background who has advised Mr Netanyahu about foreign policy, but has made only limited contributions of his own towards the formation of Israeli foreign policy. He will be replaced by Uzi Arad, the head of research in Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence organisation.

Mr Netanyahu had been criticised for not appointing a permanent Israeli ambassador to the UN, a post which has very high visibility in the US, for almost a year. Filling foreign posts is proving difficult for the prime minister because he wants to give promotion to his own men and to circumvent David Levy, the Foreign Minister and an old political rival.