I still remember that hot day in the summer of 1994 when Jordan’s King Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel’s Yitshaq Rabin in Wadi Araba. I had gone down to cover the event and remember advocate Buthina Duqmaq of the Mandella Institute for political prisoners reminding me that a number of Jordanian prisoners were still held in Israeli jails even though the two countries were signing a peace agreement.
They had prepared for the public and the press something like the bleachers of a football game. When I noticed that a number of Jordanian officials were approaching the wire mesh separating the public from officials, I decided to go down and talk to them. I came upon Fayez Tarawneh who was one of the senior negotiators of the Jordan Israel peace deal and tried to engage him on the issue. When I asked him why Jordanian prisoners weren’t released as part of the peace deal, he seemed a little embarrassed and tried to shut me down by reassuring me that they will deal with this issue soon thereafter. I am not sure whether he said in a few weeks or a few months, but whatever he said it has taken 13 years for four of these prisoners held since before the peace agreement to be released.
Two years ago when the Jordanian authorities granted me an FM license to broadcast in the Amman area, I wanted to find an issue where I could create a public campaign about. We talked with the staff about different ideas and when we came to the issue of the Jordanian prisoners held in Israeli jails. It was clear that this was a unifying issue. While the Jordan Israeli peace treaty wasn’t popular with many segments of society it was hard for anyone to argue with the need for Jordanian prisoners to be released now that there was a peace deal.
The public would support it, I was told and the government couldn’t oppose it. We created jingles calling for the release of the Jordanian prisoners, used every occasion to talk to their families and publicise their cases. We began a campaign of profiling each prisoner and doing a story about them. On religious and national holidays we made special efforts to talk to the families and asked them to tape greetings to their sons. I arranged with local Palestinian radio stations to broadcast the messages so as to allow these prisoners to hear their family voices.
At first there was a near dead silence. We were worried that nothing was moving on this clear cut case. Soon enough one of the local daily newspapers joined the campaign, then another daily newspaper.
The issue became a regular feature of the weekly briefings of the spokesman of the Jordanian government as our journalists and then others would ask about them. Once I was invited to the house of the government spokesman along with many journalists only to be surprised with a visit from the King. When I got a chance to ask a question, I inquired about this issue, I also said that while the Israeli media make a huge campaign about their prisoners the official Jordanian media is silent. The King responded by saying that he speaks about the prisoners in every meeting he has with senior Israeli officials. He also promised that some movement was happening.
Sure enough soon after that the Israelis responded positively to a request by the Red Cross to allow families of the prisoners to visit with their loved ones. The release of the Jordanian prisoners was promised in many public gatherings but then the issue seemed to climax with the Sharm el Seikh summit. Jordanian media spoke about the eminent release of four prisoners but nothing more. I checked with the Israeli media and the Israelis confirmed the report but added something to the effect they have asked the King of Jordan not to pardon these four prisoners until the end of 2008. I thought this was strange. A country is demanding of another country not to carry out one of the basic instruments of sovereignty.
The four Jordanian prisoners were to be released on Wednesday the 4th of July. Two of our staff who have been following the case, Mohammad Shamma and Nour al Ammad went by car to Sheikh Hussein Bridge and waited with the families in vein as a last minute delay had occurred. The Israeli high court was hearing a complaint apparently on behalf of the family of the Israeli soldier who had been killed by the Jordanians. Neither the journalists nor their families were to see any of the prisoners that day. The high court finally rejected the appeals late at night and the prisoners were in fact released the next day Thursday the 5th of July.
For me this last hurdle was a little hard to fathom. Here is a country that has been in peace with Israel for decades and had actually signed a treaty 13 years earlier. Here is a country who has the longest border with Israel which is kept quite because of Jordanian diligence. Here are men who have already spent 17 years of their lives for an act committed during a state of war. Why weren’t these Jordanians released on the day of the signing of the peace treaty? Why were they held for so long since? What is it about Israel that makes it so unwilling to pardon?
I often hear of case after case where a person is pardoned in Jordan or other Arab countries. A senior Jordanian official, Aqel Baltaji once told me that al afou or pardon is one the important values of Islam that is not prevalent in the Judeo-Christian traditions. I wasn’t sure about what he said then, but this one day delay by individuals or groups who are unable or unwilling to let go after so many years must reflect a culture that is unable and unwilling to forgive and forget. Is being able to pardon and forgive a source of weakness or strength?