After 20 Months in An Israeli Prison, Terre Fleener Is Angry, Unrepentant and Pro-Palestine

updated 07/16/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1979 01:00AM

On Friday she was still locked up in an Israeli prison, the first American woman ever convicted of espionage against the Jewish state. By Sunday she was in Manhattan, drinking in the sights of a sunny summer afternoon and murmuring, "I feel so happy." After 20 months behind bars, she found herself suddenly freed. "I tried never to think about the States or the past," Terre Fleener, 24, said as she was driven along Fifth Avenue. "It would only have made me sad." The young woman was slowly awaking from a nightmare—but of whose design and of what proportions were very much in dispute.

Israel charged that Fleener, acting for Fouad Bawarshi, a suspected Arab terrorist, toured the shores of Eilat and Haifa in early 1976 photographing beaches, ships and hotels where hostages could be held. A former Kuwait Airways stewardess, Terre attempted to reenter Israel in October 1977, ostensibly to live on a kibbutz. She was arrested at the airport both for her 1976 activities and for what authorities said was a plan to assist a terrorist raid on the kibbutz. Fleener, insisting that her Kodak Instamatic was incapable of high-caliber espionage, maintains now that all the accusations against her were "absurd." She admits to a relationship with Bawarshi, but turns away any further questions about him. "I will not discuss my motives for going to Israel," she says. "It is true that I was very pro-Palestinian."

But it was not Terre Fleener's politics or her conviction that created such a diplomatic uproar—or that led to State Department pressure on Israel to set her free. Rather, it was her treatment at the hands of her Israeli captors, whom she accuses of having duped her into a guilty plea with promises, threats and torture. "I was questioned six or seven times the first night," she says. "There was a high questioning table and my chair was pushed right up to it. Every once in a while they would grab my arm and pull me from the chair to the floor. My arm was numb for days after." Soon after her arrest Fleener admitted her guilt, but now insists, "In my confessions I said, 'I am signing these because I have been told that I will be released.' " Her Israeli prosecutor, Sarah Sirota, says her statements only saved her from a life sentence. In January 1978 Fleener was tried in secret for espionage. She pleaded guilty on her lawyer's advice and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Fleener had been deeply interested in the Middle East since her early teens in San Antonio. A Protestant by heritage, she once gave serious thought to converting to Judaism. She later dated several Arab men, became engaged to one and made the first of several trips to the Mideast in the early '70s with him. She met Bawarshi in 1975 while she was working for Kuwait Airways—and then, Israel charges, agreed to send him pictures and maps through a post office box on Cyprus. Israeli authorities said such material could have been used to plan guerrilla raids. When confronted with that possibility, prosecutor Sirota says Fleener cried: "I had not realized what harm my actions could bring." A State Department source concluded: "Terre was more naive and stupid than guilty."

Nonetheless, the American embassy was not notified of her arrest for three days—nor that she had been taken later from a prison outside Tel Aviv to a detention center near Haifa. "I refused to go and was moved by force," Fleener claims. "I was yanked down the steps and dragged across the prison yard. My body was covered with bruises." Her interrogators wanted information about her terrorist connections—which she refused to give. "I was questioned for three and a half days," she recalls. "They tried to humiliate me psychologically. They told me I was a prostitute. They said they would not give me any cigarettes unless I got down on the floor and begged for them. A man was placed in the room next to me and I could hear his screaming and banging. They told me he was a Lebanese acquaintance of mine and that they would torture him in front of me."

When by chance American officials learned that Fleener had been transferred, U.S. Consul James Kerr protested her "psychological torture" and the embassy demanded an investigation. The Israelis denied the charges, and Ambassador Samuel Lewis' formal plea for her freedom was rebuffed. At that, Fleener remembers, "I went into a terrible depression. I thought people had forgotten about me."

They had not. Led by political science professor Catherine Edwards, her friends from student days at the University of Texas in San Antonio formed a committee to publicize Terre's case. Her grandmother and her parents, who separated when Terre was an infant, lobbied Congress. The State Department put continual pressure on Israel—and Terre's treatment improved. "I have very little to complain about as far as the American consulate is concerned," she says in gratitude. "I think they did everything possible for me."

There still remained for her the routine deprivation and violence of prison life. Her weight dropped 55 pounds, from a hefty 180 to 125 (though she says "the food was adequate and nutritious"). She still has chilblains on her legs from the cold winters. The prison day began at 6 a.m.—"If you weren't ready by then you were locked up all day." The boredom was intense. "I read hundreds of books to pass the time," she says, including Golda Meir's My Life. Fleener's face and hands were badly blistered when she was doused with gas during a jailhouse riot—and mistakenly tried to ease the pain by splashing water on the burns. She later suffered a black eye and a bloody nose in a fight with a fellow inmate over a magazine.

Then, almost as suddenly as it began, Terre Fleener's ordeal was over. With no explanation, she was taken from her cell to a parole hearing, given back her property—including the celebrated Instamatic—and ordered out of the country. Forty-eight hours later she celebrated her freedom with a day in New York City, then flew to San Antonio for a reunion with her grandmother Rosa Guerrero, who raised her after she ran away from her stepfather's home at 13. Terre's plans include returning to school to complete her degree in political science, finding work and championing the Palestinian cause. "It's a fight I'm not going to walk away from," she says. There is a sad edge to her voice when she remembers the Terre of so few years ago who wanted to get married and raise a family. "A loving relationship has a much lower priority with me now," she says. "I just know one thing: I will never be intimidated again."

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