- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Some wives and daughters of newly elected Hamas lawmakers sat in a back row cradling poster-sized portraits of their husbands and fathers as the Palestinian parliament was sworn in.

When the names were read off, muffled voices followed a brief silence: “He is not here. … He is in prison.”

For the legislature dominated by Islamists, business as usual will mean conducting proceedings with a steady group of absentees. That’s because at least 10 percent of the representatives installed Saturday in the 132-seat parliament are in Israeli prisons.

“There are no specific charges against my husband,’ said Amal Qar’awai, whose husband, Fathi, was jailed shortly after he decided to run for office with Hamas.

“They arrested him because of the elections. Now that elections are over, they should let him go.”

With the ascendancy of Hamas, the number of jailed lawmakers has quadrupled to 14. Some have been sentenced to multiyear terms by Israel for helping Palestinian militants, while others are being detained without charges as security risks.

It’s just one of the peculiarities of a parliament in which a majority of the members face Israeli arrest because of membership in an organization branded as a terrorist underground one.

The legislature routinely holds its meetings using a videoconferencing feed to link lawmakers in Gaza who are banned from traversing Israel to the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of the parliament.

With thousands of Palestinians arrested by the Israeli army and border police during the five-year uprising, the detainees have POW status among Palestinians.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas paid homage to the jailed legislators at the outset of a 45-minute speech to open the parliament.

“I salute the members of your council who are sitting behind Israeli bars and prisons, alongside thousands of our best,” he said.

In a political system caught between liberation-movement militancy and a state in the making, time in an Israeli jail is a powerful resume builder for politicians and a potential electoral asset for political parties — even if there’s no certainty that they will ever go free.

“A person who is in prison suffering is dignified among Palestinians,” said Abdel Rahman Zeidan, a newly minted Hamas legislator who said he had spent six years in Israeli jails. “People respect the ones who are suffering and represent their nation, and feel their pain.”

Among the prisoners is Marwan Barghouti, a widely popular leader from the defeated Fatah party who is serving consecutive life sentences after an Israeli court convicted him of murder.

Prisoners can run a campaign from prison cells, but Palestinian parliamentary bylaws forbid them from casting votes until they are free.

Palestinian officials say the rule was designed to ensure that Israeli prison authorities wouldn’t abuse prisoners in an attempt to influence their votes.

But prisoners and their relatives argue they should be given the opportunity to vote from their jail cells as a show of respect to their contribution for to the Palestinian people.

“The bylaws should be changed. The prisoners are the ones who sacrificed lots of things for the Palestinian cause, so they should be given the right to vote, even if it’s from jail,” said Salsabeel Yousef, the 26-year-old daughter of Sheik Hassan Yousef, a leading Hamas politician in the West Bank.

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