Scenes of joy in besieged Gaza

A vigil for Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank on October 18. Photo by Ted Walker.

The sense of joy was palpable in the streets of Gaza on October 18 as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel returned home. It was a remarkable day in the life of the territory’s 1.6 million Palestinians.

During the past five years Israel has levied a heavy price on Gaza's civilian population for the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Palestinian resistance fighters. It has been extracted with Israel’s warplanes, tanks, bulldozers and relentless siege.

At last the people of Gaza could feel a sense of relief. From early morning, thousands lined both sides of Salah al-Din street, a main thoroughfare, as if they were receiving a VIP or a president. But it was prisoners freed under a deal between Israel and Hamas who were the honoured guests.

Thousands more gathered in Gaza City’s al-Katiba Square, where a large stage had been erected and patriotic music played.

Just near the stage, hundreds of women of all ages stood anxiously, some cheering loudly as the song “Palestinians, Palestinians, Determined to Go On” played.

Looking old and tired among dozens of women, Umm Hazem Hasanin from eastern Gaza City held a portrait of her son Hazem, who was taken prisoner by Israeli forces in 2004 near the Nahal Oz Junction, east of Gaza City.

Hasanin spoke cheerfully to Electronic Intifada, despite having stood in the sun for several hours. Umm Hazem’s son, now 31, was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

“God willing, my son will be released soon, even tomorrow hopefully,” she said. “I am here today despite the fact that my son is not listed in the exchange deal.

“I am here to send a message that all Palestinians are looking for freedom and salvation from the Israeli occupation.”

Farhana al-Ashqar is another elder Palestinian woman, who waited several hours in the heat to welcome the freed prisoners. Her nephew Ibrahim has been imprisoned for one year and two months.

“May Allah bestow victory on the Palestinian resistance in order to achieve further prisoner swap deals that will help those in Israeli jails to be freed,” al-Ashqar said. “We are proud of these heroes.”

Fawziya Abu Karsh is the sister-in-law of released prisoner Talib Abu Karsh who was sentenced to four life terms. He has spent 16 years in prison.
“I have been here since 9am to welcome him and to see him after these long years of imprisonment,” she said, while carrying her baby near a portrait of Talib. “Let me greet the Palestinian resistance for helping release these Palestinian heroes.”

At another corner in al-Katiba Square, hundreds of youth gathered, raising Palestinian flags and banners of Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Islamic Jihad, a mix of colors representing the various political factions. It was a scene very rarely seen since a national unity government led by Fatah and Hamas, the major parties, collapsed the year after Shalit was captured.

Khaled Hammad was in al-Katiba Square to receive his freed brother. “I am waiting here for the arrival of my brother Majdy Hammad, who has spent 20 years of his six-times life sentence. I am waiting for the moment to embrace him, something that I have never experienced for the past 20 years.

“Whatever I say cannot express my feelings or emotions at this moment.”

After the long day of waiting, vans carrying the freed prisoners showed up in the back streets and an excited and anxious crowd, largely young people, rushed quickly to get a look into the buses. Many whistled as others set off fireworks.

About 266 freed prisoners, including 136 from the West Bank, arrived in Gaza on October 18.

Arafat al-Natshi, a freed prisoner from the West Bank city of Hebron, said excitedly: “I cannot describe my feelings being among my brothers and sisters in Gaza. This is really a big reception that we did not expect.”

Under the deal, Al-Natshi has been forced to live in Gaza instead of being returned home to Hebron.

Mohammad Abu Awad is another freed prisoner, from the West Bank city of Nablus. “I am extremely happy to be released,” he said, “something that I had not imagined because I have been sentenced to life. Yet my happiness is marred by the fact that we have left behind many brothers in jail, with whom we have spent more time than we’ve spent with our families.”

Jameela al-Shanti, minister of women’s affairs in the Hamas-led government in Gaza, hailed the prisoners’ release by means of the swap deal as a step in the right direction.“The release of prisoners today is clear proof that the Palestinian resistance is the only path that will resolve the problems of the Palestinian people including Israeli settlement activities and the Israeli siege on Gaza,” al-Shanti told Electronic Intifada.

“I would like to emphasise that we are taking this path until all our prisoners are released from Israeli jails and Palestine is liberated from the Israeli occupation.”

Israel and Hamas, through Egyptian officials and with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, facilitated the agreed prisoners’ exchange on October 18. The agreement came after five years of talks, brokered by Egypt and Germany.

Israel agreed to release more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners, including women and minors, in exchange for the Israeli soldier.

Right after the Shalit’s capture in 2006, Israel carried out a huge attack on Gaza, killing and injuring hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children and causing a great deal of damage to infrastructure, including power and water networks.

Since then, Gaza’s 1.6 million residents have suffered power cut-offs, almost daily.

[Abridged from ElectronicIntifada. Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.]