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The woman in the way of a Palestinian prisoner deal
by Matthew Kalman
Time Magazine, December 30, 2009

Amneh Muna is high on the Hamas list of Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged for the soldier Gilad Shalit. Serving a life sentence, she has become a symbol of Palestinian women prisoners, a hard-line agitator for Palestinian prisoners' rights and a constant thorn in the side of her Israeli incarcerators. But the crime for which she has been convicted is so heinous in the eyes of Israelis that few see any justice in letting her go, even for the freedom of one of their own soldiers.

Nine years ago, Muna seduced a 16-year-old Israeli boy over the Internet, luring him into a liaison that resulted in his death. At the time, Muna was a 24-year-old Palestinian journalist from the West Bank city of Ramallah when she began trawling Internet chat rooms at about the time of the second intifadeh. She soon found Ofir Rahum, a schoolboy from the Israeli city of Ashkelon. She said her name was Sali, a newly immigrated Moroccan Jew, and soon initiated a sexually charged cyber-relationship. The young man was bedazzled by the thought of an older woman being so passionate about him.

Just weeks after their online liaison began, she convinced Rahum to skip school and hang out with her in Jerusalem. "I miss you Ofir," Muna wrote in a series of passionate exchanges. "I hope you are coming on wednesday ... please don't say no I need you to be with me ... please. I will be waiting for you on Wednesday. I will have a good dream about you ... You don't know how much I am waiting for Wednesday. Love you dear." She described herself as "169 cm, black hair bob, hazeled eyes" and asked for his description so she could meet him off the bus. Rahum didn't tell his parents where he was going. He withdrew his savings and told close friends he was off on a tryst with his online lover. "He was very enthusiastic about her because she was older than him. I think that's what attracted him, her age. We never imagined such a thing could happen," said his friend Shlomi Abergil.

In her confession, Muna described how she met Rahum in Jerusalem on that day in January 2001, took a taxi to the northern suburbs and from there drove her own car to the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The two cities are almost touching. Rahum probably didn't know he had left Jerusalem. Muna told police she intended to hold Rahum as a hostage to prod the Israelis to release Palestinian prisoners. But in Ramallah, one of her co-conspirators, Hassan al-Qadi (a "senior armed terror operative," according to Israeli intelligence), allegedly shot the boy dead at point-blank range.

When Rahum failed to return that night and his parents discovered that he hadn't been to school, they alerted the police. Logging onto the chat room through his computer, Rahum's sister tried contacting Sali but there was no reply. "I knew about his relationship with the woman but neither of us knew that she was from Ramallah," said the boy's friend Abergil. "She misled him. He told us that she was from Jerusalem." Israeli police discovered the body of a boy on the outskirts of Ramallah. Israeli intelligence traced Muna's screen name to an Internet café in Ramallah and tracked her down to her parents' home in Bir Naballah, a village north of Jerusalem, where she was seized days after the murder.

At trial, her lawyer Jawad Boulos said Muna never intended to kill the boy. "What happened, happened out of her control, without her knowledge and certainly without her consent," he said. But in courthouse interviews, she reportedly told reporters, "I am proud of myself. I am proud of myself." In November 2001, Muna was given a life sentence by an Israeli military court. The gunman al-Qadi, meanwhile, had been killed in an explosion in Ramallah in April 2001. It was never established whether he had been targeted by the Israelis or was the victim of a bomb he may have been handling at the time.

Behind bars, Muna became a radical leader of women prisoners and a Palestinian heroine. To the Israelis, however, she was a troublemaker. In 2004, Muna sparked two riots in Sharon Prison near Netanya. Warders said she terrorized the women's cell block with threats of violence, punishing anyone who challenged her. In 2006, she was transferred for beating up a fellow prisoner. Declaring she was too disruptive to mix with other inmates, officials put Muna in solitary confinement. In 2007, however, she went on hunger strike to protest her isolation, kept in her cell for up to 23 hours a day. In June 2008 she was moved to the Damon Prison in northern Israel, where she has told visitors the conditions are slightly better.

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, says Muna's notoriety helped get her on the Hamas list but it also makes Israel unwilling to release her. "She committed a heinous crime but if she is released she'll be greeted when she returns as a symbol and a heroine. For that reason Israel strongly resists allowing her out, or if she is released they want to expel her from the area. Israel has resisted this exchange for more than three years. The majority of Israelis find the deal distasteful but accept it as the price necessary to bring back an Israeli soldier that was kidnapped," says Steinberg.

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