Will Jordanian prisoners in Israel complete sentences at home?

Questions arise as to whether Israel will send Jordanian prisoners to complete their prison sentences in their country, in an attempt to avoid releasing them in a possible prisoner exchange.

al-monitor An Israeli flag is seen next to the gate of the Megiddo Prison in northern Israel, July 24, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Aug 28, 2019

A number of Jordanian nationals who are held in Israeli prisons have been offered to complete their prison sentences in Jordan, Al-Monitor has learned from multiple Jordanian and Palestinian sources.

Palestinian head of the Commission of Prisoners Affairs Qadri Abu Bakr, which falls under the Ministry of Prisoners Affairs, confirmed the reports to Al-Monitor. “Two months ago, a number of Jordanian prisoners held in Israeli prisons were approached by Israeli prison officials with the offer to complete their sentences in their country. They received mixed reactions,” he said.

Abu Bakr noted that the Palestinian government “understands the humanitarian” aspect of the issue because many have not seen their family for years. He added, “We have said that the decision is up to the prisoners and their families. Our support and financial commitments to the prisoners from Jordan and the Golan Heights is exactly the same as that to the other Palestinian prisoners.”

Palestinian prison sources say 21 Jordanian citizens are held in Israeli prisons at present.

Fadi Farah, the coordinator of the Jordanian committee for prisoners and the missing, told Al-Monitor that some of the Jordanian prisoners who were approached agreed to the idea, while others had conditions. “Among the conditions that they requested in order to accept the offer is that they are treated in accordance with Jordanian law in terms of the length of prison sentences, visitation and parole; that they are not housed with criminal prisoners; and that if there is a prisoner exchange they be included regardless of whether they are serving their sentences in an Israeli prison or a Jordanian prison.”

The idea of a prisoner exchange deal could be the reason behind the Israeli offer. A Jordanian source close to the prisoners believes that Israel wants to move the prisoners to Jordan so as not to be forced to deal with releasing some of the long-term prisoners such as Abdullah Barghouti.

Many protesters have called on the inclusion of Barghouti — who is serving 67 life sentences — and other Jordanian prisoners in the exchange agreement negotiated indirectly between Israel and Hamas. Barghouti, an engineer, has been convicted of multiple attacks that led to the death of tens of Israelis.

The move might also be connected to another major point of contention between Jordan and Israel. Alaa Burqan, a Jordanian activist working independently to support prisoners, told Al-Monitor that a number of prisoners’ families, including the family of Barghouti, have not been able to see their loved ones for over a decade. “The last time Jordan was able to organize a trip for families to see their relatives held in Israeli prisons was in 2008," he said. "This was a single trip that has not been repeated despite continuous demands of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry.”

Jordan and the International Committee for the Red Cross have tried to organize the visits, but the Israelis have not given the required visa to enter Israel.

Burqan conceded that some individual visits were organized usually after relatives held prolonged protests. “The father of Jordanian youth Mohammad Mahdi protested and went on hunger strike outside the Jordanian Foreign Ministry before they were able to arrange with the Israelis to allow him to visit in August 2013. The same happened with the brother of Munir Mirai in November 2016,” he said, noting that Jordanian officials only take action when there is a public protest.

While not taking a position on the idea of prisoners completing their sentences in Jordan, Burqan argues that Jordan has missed a number of opportunities to get the prisoners released. “When Jordan signed the peace treaty [with Israel], they could have asked for a release of Jordanian prisoners. Also when an Israeli security officer at the embassy killed two Jordanians [in 2017], this could have been an opportunity to demand the release of Jordanian prisoners.”

While Jordan has proved that it has fulfilled agreements and commitments regarding prisoners completing their sentences in Jordanian prisons, there is a difference in how to calculate the prison sentences. Farah said that in previous cases where Jordan has agreed to allow Jordanians sentenced in Israel to complete their sentences at home, such as the case of Ahmad Daqamsheh and Sultan Ajlouny, Jordanian law was applied. The prison sentences have a different conversion rate. Life sentences in Jordan are converted to 20 years with the possibility of parole after two-thirds of the sentence is completed. In Israel, a life sentence is 99 years, he explained.

Jordanian law also allows for prisoners to make home visits. Farah noted in this regard, “In the case of a number of prisoners — and with the proper bail terms satisfied — prisoners were released to spend the weekend at home and return to prison afterward.”

Hamas chief Ismael Haniyeh announced Aug. 18 that his movement is ready for negotiations on a prisoner swap deal with Israel. “The day has come that the prisoners are released and we are not going to leave them,” Haniyeh said during his visit to several families in the central Gaza Strip. During the war on Gaza in 2017, Hamas captured four Israeli soldiers. It is unclear whether at the time of their capture, they were alive or not.

While it is highly unlikely that any prisoner exchange will take place before the upcoming Sept. 17 Israeli elections, it is not inconceivable that immediately after the elections a prisoner exchange might take place. It appears that the Israelis are hoping to get Hamas to renege on its demand that a number of prisoners, such as Barghouti, be included in the swap. This would lessen the public blowback that might occur if they are released as part of a prisoner exchange. Also, if Jordanian prisoners are allowed to complete their terms in Jordan, this could improve the shattered Jordanian-Israeli relations that recently saw the summoning of the Israeli ambassador over the situation in Jerusalem and at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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