Israel in quandary over social captives

Haifa Farras is serving a two-year sentence for trying to stab an Israeli soldier with a knife in September 1995. She should be released this week. Israel agreed as part of its Hebron deal with the PLO three weeks ago that she and 28 other female Palestinian political prisoners would be freed during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.

But Ms Farras, 31, is not a typical political prisoner, and she is far from elated at the thought of her impending freedom. She admits that her motives in confronting the solider with a kitchen knife were not primarily political: she was desperate to escape her family, who wanted her to go to Saudi Arabia, and thought an Israeli jail was the best place to do it.

The Independent has learned that many of the other female prisoners have similar stories: they had social, rather than political, motives for their attacks on Israelis. According to the Women's Organisation for Political Prisoners, only eight of the 29 women - whose release was debated for weeks in the peace negotiations and bitterly decried by some Israelis who oppose freeing women they call "terrorists" - were primarily political in their motivation.

The others are what the WOPP calls "social cases": unhappy young girls who sought personal freedom in the form of an Israeli jail. Fleeing abusive homes, arranged marriages, or choosing to continue their studies, they committed acts of violence against Israelis, knowing that they would be given lengthy jail sentences.

In autumn 1995, Ms Farras visited relatives in the Gaza strip. Her parents, Palestinian refugees who now live in Saudi Arabia, told her it was time to join them. "But I was so happy, to be in my country [Gaza]," she says. "I had studied microbiology for six years and I knew that back in Saudi I couldn't be free like I was in Gaza."

So one morning she tried to stab a soldier at a checkpoint in Gaza, and as she had expected, she soon found herself part of a well-known small band of women prisoners in Telmond Prison, north of Tel Aviv. Her family has never been to visit her in jail - "they are angry, they think my disobedience was shameful" - and she dreads facing them, if they will in fact take her back, upon her release.

"Palestinian society is patriarchal, and under the Israeli occupation, it was especially tightly controlled," said Ibtisam Jikhlleb, an activist with the WOPP, which raises funds and provides lawyers for the women. "Some women saw no other escape, felt they had nothing to lose, and in the environment of the intifada [Palestinian rebellion], they saw stabbing a soldier as the best way out."

Last summer, when Israel announced that all the women except five who "have Jewish blood on their hands" would be released, the others refused to go. They barricaded themselves together in two cells and held a 19- day hunger strike, until Israel agreed that they would stay in prison. "And if we are not all released this week, then we are all staying," Ms Farras said.

"I've learned here that it's a good thing for girls to fight in the resistance," she explains.

Ms Farras has an almost reverential respect for the five women for whom she has remained in jail. Among them is Rula Abu Dehu, 28, who has served nine years of a life-plus-25-years sentence for transporting a weapon used to kill on Israeli, a charge she still denies.

Abu Dehu was a member of a cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and still speaks proudly of her activities with them. But she acknowledged in Telmond last week that few of the women imprisoned there with her were activists like she was.

"It's true, they weren't like me," she said. "But look at what they chose to do: they didn't run away, they didn't use drugs or rob a store, they chose to attack a soldier. That spirit of resistance is in all Palestinian women."

t Nablus, West Bank (AP) - A Palestinian land-dealer who died in custody over the weekend was tortured by his Palestinian interrogators, the justice minister Freih Abu Medein said in an interview published yesterday.

The death of Yousef Baba, 32, brought to 11 the number of Palestinians who have died in detention since Yasser Arafat's self-rule government took control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza strip in May 1994.