Yasser Arafat doesn’t merely set free some Palestinians suspected of violent attacks on Israelis. He often give them jobs in his security apparatus.

In early February, Gen. Tawfik Tirawi, the head of the muhabarat, the Palestinian secret police, arranged for the head of the CIA station in Tel Aviv to accompany him to the Jericho jail, where Youssef and Shaher Ra’i are confined.

The Ra’i cousins, from Qalqilyah, serving seven-year sentences, have been linked to the killings of Ohad Bachrach and Uri Shahor — Israeli hikers stabbed to death in Wadi Qelt, between Jerusalem and Jericho, in 1995. Bachrach’s and Shahor’s relatives, who accompanied Benjamin Netanyahu on his January visit to Washington, had claimed that the Ra’is were free to wander at will in the Jericho area — a claim endorsed by Netanyahu aides; Gen. Tirawi proclaimed that the Jericho jail visit showed up “the lie of Netanyahu.”

The CIA visitor was shown a four-man cell, with Shaher Ra’i sitting in it. He had a TV, a radio and a refrigerator; on the walls were photographs of his two daughters and of his heroes — Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto (Che) Guevara, and master Hamas bombmaker Yihya Ayyash, “the Engineer,” who was killed by Israel in 1996. Jericho jail commander Walid Jabali insisted the Ra’is had not left the jail since September 1995, when they were arrested and jailed — in a 10-minute trial — for damaging Palestinian national interests, rather than as accomplices to murder.

But, the Report has learned, the visit was an elaborate ruse to placate the Americans. The Ra’is are prisoners only in name; until recently the two activists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had been leading normal lives outside the prison walls, albeit inside Jericho city limits. Eye witnesses have seen them at coffeeshops and markets in the town, in the company of family members and friends.

The Ra’is, on a list of 36 alleged terrorists whose extradition is demanded by Israel, represent the rule, not the exception. A few of those on the Israeli list are indeed in prison, but others have long since been freed — and many more have never been arrested. Israel often complains about what it calls the PA’s “revolving-door policy” of quickly freeing those involved in terrorism. Ironically, having kicked up an international furor over the Ra’is, Israeli government sources now privately admit that they are no longer absolutely certain the cousins were actually involved in the Wadi Qelt murders at all. On the basis of The Report’s investigation, however, many other of the Israeli complaints are well founded.

On the orders of Yasser Arafat, Palestinians arrested for attacking Israelis are tried almost instantly by special State Security Courts, and convicted and sentenced before Israel can begin extradition proceedings. The courts often mete out sentences that seem severe — but defendants rarely serve more than a few months behind bars before they are reunited with their families, and allowed to move freely in PA-controlled territory. If they renounce membership in Hamas or one of the other radical organizations, and pledge their allegiance to Arafat’s mainstream Fatah organization, they often find employment with one of the 10 official PA security agencies operating in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Authority refuses to provide statistics on terror-linked convicts released before the end of their terms. But Palestinian sources say that between their foundation in April 1995 and the end of 1997, the courts tried and sentenced 46 Palestinians for direct and indirect involve ment in anti-Israel terror. Sentences ranged from six months in jail to life; many of those jailed, particularly those sentenced to two years or less, were freed in months.

They are the beneficiaries of a Palestinian strategy — repeatedly underlined by officials — that no Palestinian will ever extradite his brother, under any circumstances, to the Israeli enemy. “If some day Jewish terrorists responsible for killing Arabs are handed over to us, we might consider making a reciprocal gesture,” says Sufyan Abu Zaideh, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s “Israeli Desk.” “In the meantime, Israel has no right to ask for the extradition of Palestinians who have already been sentenced by our courts.”

The Israeli extradition list includes at least 10 people who are now members of the various Palestinian security forces — and is topped by Ghazi Jabali, the Palestinian police commissioner for Gaza and the West Bank, who heads the 12,000-strong, blue-uniformed police force. Israel suspects that Jabali has organized terror cells inside the force itself, and instructed individual policemen to carry out attacks against Israelis. Jabali calls the charges “ridiculous,” and warns that any attempt to arrest him will lead to armed confrontation.

Others on the Israeli list, now serving in Palestinian law enforcement, include:

  • Iyad Abu-Shakafa, a Fatah activist accused of the attempted murder of Shaul David in Ramlah, in 1994, who is now a captain in Jabali’s police force in Gaza
  • Iyad Basheeti, a former Hamas activist from Rafah in the Gaza Strip, who is suspected of involvement in two murders in Ramlah in 1994. Basheeti’s relatives have told The Report he works as an interrogator for Palestinian military intelligence.
  • Atef Hamdan, today employed by Palestinian Preventive Security, who was arrested in 1996 amid allegations of his involvement in a 1992 attempt to murder a soldier, but was freed almost immediately.
  • Ibrahim Shadeed, now a policeman in Tul Karm, who allegedly took part in the October 1994 killing of a collaborator.
  • Bassam Aram and Yasser Aram, accused of the December 1993 attempted murder of Zvi Fixler, at Moshav Gan Or in the southern Gaza Strip, who are reportedly on the Palestinian security forces payroll.
  • Bassam Issa, a former Hamas activist, who is suspected of involvement in the murder of three Israeli soldiers in April 1993, and in the attack with assault rifles and grenades on Yoel Salomon Street in Jerusalem in October 1994 (in which two Israelis died), and who is now an officer in the Palestinian Preventive Security police.

The ranks of the various Palestinian security forces also include a large number of Palestinians guilty of crimes against other Palestinians, particularly those who collaborated with Israel during the Intifada. Israel released them as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords — on condition they be confined to Jericho. But many of them have been given weapons, military or police ranks, and security posts in the West Bank and Gaza.

Take the case of Nasser Abu Hmeid, of the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, sentenced by Israel in 1993 to nine life terms for his role in the decapitation killings of collaborators. Shortly after his post-Oslo transfer to Jericho, Abu Hmeid — who headed a group called the Masked Lion — joined the Palestinian Preventive Security apparatus as an interrogator. In 1994, a few weeks before control of West Bank cities was handed over to the PA, Abu Hmeid was caught by an undercover Israeli patrol in Ramallah. He is now back in an Israeli prison — because he violated the terms of his release by leaving Jericho.

Not all freed prisoners join the ranks of the Palestinian police. Some have gone on to carry out other terror acts. The best-known case is that of Moawiya Jarara, Bashar Salawah and Tawfiq Yassin, who blew themselves up in the September 1997 Ben-Yehudah mall attack. All three had been detained by Arafat’s police in Nablus in March 1996, but unexplainably strolled free six months later.

Palestinian officials admit that some of those accused of security offenses have been freed, but say they don’t understand why Israel is so agitated. “So what if Israel says these people are involved in attacks,” says a Palestinian general based in Ramallah. “That doesn’t automatically make it true. Besides, some of the accusations go back to before the Oslo Accords. If we punish everyone guilty of acts of violence between 1967 and Oslo, in 1993, we will have to arrest tens of thousands of Palestinians.

“The next thing the Netanyahu government will do,” he continues, “is ask for the extradition of Abu Amar, Yasser Arafat. If that happens, we’ll have the right to ask for the extradition of Yitzhak Shamir and other Israeli leaders who are responsible for atrocities against our people.”