In seven years on the run from Israel, Amjad Halawi grew a thick mane of black hair well below his shoulders because he was too afraid to come out of hiding, even for a trip to the barbershop.
On Sunday, he got a new life — and the chance for a haircut — as one of dozens of Fatah gunmen to lay down weapons in an amnesty deal with Israel.
Israel’s promise to stop hunting nearly 200 armed fugitives, along with its permission to let notorious Palestinian Liberation Organization guerrilla chief Nayef Hawatmeh return from exile, signaled a new turn in Israeli-Palestinian relations after seven years of fighting.
The Israeli gestures are meant to boost moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the violent takeover of Gaza by the Islamic militant group Hamas last month.
Abbas, the leader of Fatah, has tried to consolidate his control in recent weeks to prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. He’s installed an interim government of moderates, arrested dozens of Hamas supporters and tried to win long-elusive concessions from Israel, including the removal of army roadblocks and the deal on Fatah fugitives.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are to meet Monday.
“Ultimately, we want the Palestinian people to reach an understanding that they have much to gain through dialogue and negotiations while the extremists can only offer death and destruction,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
“We are trying hard to turn the page,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Living up to promises
At a meeting in Egypt last month, Olmert and Abbas agreed to try to restore relations to what they were before the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000. The amnesty deal for Fatah fugitives and an easing of crippling traveling restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank were among the proposed steps.
At the start of the uprising, Fatah supporters formed the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an umbrella group for squads of gunmen who carried out attacks on Israelis, most in the West Bank, but also some in Israel.
Under the deal offered by Israel, 178 Al Aqsa gunmen would join the Palestinian security forces and be taken off Israel’s wanted list if they refrain from violence for the next three months. Each gunman was asked to sign a non-violence pledge and give his weapon to the security forces.
Fifteen gunmen signed the pledge in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, said Ziad Mishar, 39, one of the pardoned fugitives. Afterward, they reported to various security compounds where they are to remain under supervision for the coming week.
At the offices of the Preventive Security Service, Halawi, the long-haired fugitive, and four other Al Aqsa members were trying to adjust to a new life.
Halawi, 35, said he has been a fugitive for seven years, but was evasive about what landed him on the wanted list or where he had been hiding. “Every second, I thought they (Israeli troops) will either catch me or kill me,” he said.
Halawi, a former construction worker, said he got engaged just before the uprising and plans to get married once he leaves the security compound. He’ll get his hair cut before his wedding.
Fugitives anxious for normalcy
The fugitives stopped short of saying the armed uprising was a mistake, but said they’re eager to get on with their lives. Khalil Abayad, 45, who spent five years sleeping on the rocky floors of caves around Bethlehem, will rejoin his two wives and 12 children. Anis Jawarish, 23, said he’ll resume sociology studies interrupted three years ago.
However, not all fugitives are taking the deal. In the Balata refugee camp near the city of Nablus, Al Aqsa gunman Alaa Sanakra said he’s not signing the non-violence pledge because his younger brother, 21-year-old Ahmed, was not included in the amnesty.
“What do I do if they leave me, but come get my brother?” he said.
Abu Obeida, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, slammed Fatah for the amnesty agreement, saying it was meant “to destroy the spirit of the resistance” and allow Israel to focus on Hamas militants.
Abbas, meanwhile, has called for a meeting of a top PLO policy-making body Wednesday to ask it to approve his recent moves against Hamas.
Israel said Sunday it would allow Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the tiny Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to return from exile in Syria to attend the session. The DFLP is best known for commandeering a school in the Israeli town of Maalot in 1974, leaving 24 dead, mostly children.
The decision to allow Hawatmeh’s return drew some opposition among Israelis.
Tzipi Buchis, who was wounded in the Maalot attack as a child, said she is still haunted.
“I will never forgive or forget what he did or those who want to allow him back in the country,” she told Channel 10 television. “This is a person with lots and lots of blood on his hands. The government must never allow these murderers in the country.”